I have written several articles on postings related to politics. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on these political events.
Table of Contents
– Defining the problem – what does cancelling mean?
– ‘Call-out culture’ versus ‘cancel culture’
– ‘Cancel that bitch’: cancel culture’s on-screen origin
– ‘You’re cancelled’: when reality TV put cancel culture on the internet
– ‘If I were to have voted, I would have voted on Trump’: the first celebrity casualties
– The rise of right-wing cancel culture
– What’s Really Behind the Left’s ‘Cancel Culture’
– Can cancel culture be cancelled?
– Weaponized Political Correctness
– The Consequences
– What is political legitimacy?
– The perils of cancel and call-out culture
– How conspiracy theories undermine democratic legitimacy
– Striking similarities
– What can be done?
– Sackings, investigations and withdrawn words
– Push-back against push-back
– Some speech requires consequences, but which speech?
– Caution about consequences
– Should this worry us?
– The ‘cancel culture’ war is really about old elites losing power in the social media age
– Cancel culture is about power — who has it and who wants to be heard
– CANCEL CULTURE: THE GOOD, THE BAD, & ITS IMPACT ON SOCIAL CHANGE
– Simple Ways We Can Fight Cancel Culture and Defend Freedom of Speech in an Interview with Peter Boghossian
– As ‘cancel culture’ activism peaks, big tech and its algorithms quietly fuel the flames
– The truth behind cancel culture’s view of truth, freedom of expression, and gender neutrality
– The truth behind cancel culture’s truth
– The truth behind cancel culture’s freedom of expression
– The truth behind cancel culture’s gender neutrality
– The Truth Behind Cancel Culture
– The frenzy of unrelenting online bullying further destroys the mental health of those already suffering, and everyone has a role to play
– The unrelenting pressure of fame
– I don’t think I fully was prepared’
– The bully, the target, the bystander, and the defender
– Online stars fight hate all the time
– Who’s behind the war on statues?
– Not Just Publishing But Also Libraries
– Two-Way Activism Street Between Books, Schools
– Working Hand in Hand with Activist Teachers
– Scared Authors Conform
– Targeted Attacks on Non-Political Authors
– IBM Gets It Right on Cancel Culture and Corporate Responsibility
– When boycotts work: “Cancel culture” as damage control
– IBM gets corporate social responsibility right
– “Cancel culture,” the talent race and brand reputation
– Reputational risk and public safety
– Cancel Culture Is So Toxic For Our Mental Health
– Wilson’s advice for someone who’s been cancelled:
– Cancel culture is a relic of slavery
In 2020, there’s one c-word more politically charged than coronavirus: cancelled. The debate over so-called internet “cancel culture” – a rallying cry or cudgel, depending on which end of the political spectrum you’re reading this from – has grown gradually louder over the second half of the decade.
Accelerated by the increased role of the internet over the last few months as the physical world went into lockdown, the rights and wrongs of “cancelling” have never been more prominent in the cultural conversation.
Earlier this month came the publication of the Harper’s letter, an open letter signed by more than 150 prominent authors, thinkers and journalists, including JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, decrying what they see as the consequences of cancel culture: a loss of open debate and tolerance. A counter-letter defending cancel culture as a way of dealing “with the problem of power: who has it and who does not” swiftly followed.
But how did we get here? Where did the term “cancel” come from, and why has it become a touchstone for political polarisation?
Defining the problem – what does cancelling mean?
Before digging into the history of the term, it’s helpful to establish what exactly it means to cancel someone or something. Unfortunately, as with so much these days, the answer to that really depends who you ask.
Most simply, to cancel someone is to reject them, to ignore, to publicly oppose their views or actions and to deprive them of time and attention – and, sometimes, their ability to make a living.
To many on the left, it is a classic tactic of the politically disenfranchised adapted for the hashtag-obsessed internet age. A “cultural boycott” is how Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies the intersection of digital media and race, gender and sexuality, describes that tactic. When a group of people lack the power to change or dismantle something, one of the few options available to them is to refuse to participate. In the economy of the internet, where attention often equals money, such a boycott has consequences.
On the right, “cancel culture” is seen as kind of internet mob rule, a blunt instrument wielded by the intolerant against free speech and open debate. Signatories of the Harper’s letter fear that the “restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.” (Although the right has been known to have people cancelled themselves – more on that later.)
The Cancel Culture Mob knows few limitations. While social media has empowered people to speak their minds, it has also empowered the masses to attempt to “cancel” those who express controversial opinions. Victims of cancel culture often end up jobless, friendless, and helpless. Those engaging in canceling people, however, gain nothing but empty satisfaction. In a Cancel Culture, everyone loses the ability to understand differing perspectives, making echo chambers and their disastrous consequences inevitable.
Cancel Culture has been described as accountability by its proponents, but that is not a fair assessment of this phenomenon. If Cancel Culture implied accountability, then there would be an avenue for redemption. When the mob controls justice, there is no means by which you can regain their respect.
In everyday parlance, cancelling someone can be jokey and inconsequential:
But it can also be deployed totally seriously, with real-life consequences. The story of how the term “cancel” entered the political arena encompasses both sides of the coin.
‘Call-out culture’ versus ‘cancel culture’
A note on terminology: another related internet term that gets thrown around a lot is “call-out culture” – a concept related to but distinct from the popular understanding of cancel culture. Really, a call-out is preceding stage to a cancellation: if someone says something online that I find offensive, I can tell them and they avoid doing it again.
Since the idea of a call-out is essentially remedial rather than punitive, activists like actress Jameela Jamil have publicly advocated it over cancel culture.
Jamil, who has been both a leader in calling out social media posts from celebrities including Kim Kardashian that encourage unrealistic female body images, has herself been the subject of vehement criticism. But as she recently put it: “I am a fallible human being. I try not to make mistakes but when I slip up, I refuse to then be cast away forever. Most human beings are capable of change and decency and doing better.”
‘Cancel that bitch’: cancel culture’s on-screen origin
It’s impossible to know for sure where the use of the word cancel as we know it began, but the best guess (via Vox) is from the mouth a particular nasty character in Mario Van Peeble’s 1991 New York crime thriller New Jack City. In one scene, drug boss Nino, played by Wesley Snipes, is railed at by his girlfriend for the violence he oversees. His response? He shoves her onto a table, inexplicably douses his her with champagne and dumps her with the words “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another.”
Despite its relatively small budget, New Jack City was the highest grossing independent film of 1991 and became something of a cult classic. Then in 2010, Lil Wayne – widely considered one of the most influential hip hop artists of his generation – he currently enjoys about 20 million monthly listeners on Spotify – referenced the scene with a line in his song I’m Single: “Yeah, I’m single / n____ had to cancel that bitch like Nino.” The seeds of cancel culture had been sown.
‘You’re cancelled’: when reality TV put cancel culture on the internet
In December 2014, american cable channel VH1’s reality show Love and Hip-Hop: New York aired an episode in which cast member Diamond Strawberry (yes, you heard me) tells her boyfriend Cisco Rosado that she has a six-year-old daughter.
This was the moment that the term cancelled took hold on Twitter, particularly Black Twitter – a shorthand for a large network of black, largely American Twitter users who often coordinate to draw attention to political and racial issues via hashtags.
Cancel culture developed hand-in-hand with Me Too movement, which swept the world in 2017 as women began to speak out about widespread cultures of sexual assault in workplaces and industries. Some of the most prominent individuals accused face criminal charges – Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in jail for rape and other sex crimes earlier this year, while financier Jeffrey Epstein died while awaiting trial for sex trafficking in 2019 – but many faced their biggest recriminations online. Louis CK and Kevin Spacey
When Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey was accused of sexual assault by several actors, some of whom were underage, he was dropped from his starring role in the HBO drama series House of Cards, replaced in the film All The Money In The World and the Gore Vidal biopic he was supposed to be shooting for Netflix was also cancelled. Spacey was charged with several sexual offences but none have so far been successfully prosecuted and he denies all allegations. Nevertheless, his cancellation seems effectively to have ended his career.
By contrast, comedian Louis CK, who admitted to several incidents of sexual misconduct the same year, made a successful return to stand-up in 2018, including a sell-out tour the next year and a new comedy special, released in 2020. His career is diminished, yes, but not necessarily cancelled.
‘If I were to have voted, I would have voted on Trump’: the first celebrity casualties
At first, cancel culture was most often deployed as a kangaroo court for alleged abusers and predators. Not any more. If you type the phrase into Google today, you’re more likely to find celebrity gaffes than crimes or abuses of power. The pandemic has proved a particularly fertile time for bored stars to air their fruitier views in public. Kanye West and Taylor Swift
But celebrities have been targeted by cancel culture from its inception. 2016, the year of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election can also be fondly remembered for claiming cancel culture’s first prominent celebrity casualties.
Kanye West was once a titan of American culture – the man credited with producing some of the most interesting music of our time and for criticising George Bush over the plight of black citizens in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Occasionally prone to outspoken and ill-judged public utterances, West took it too far for many of his fans when he announced onstage that he was a Trump supporter. He appeared in a photo op with the President at Trump Tower later the same year and in 2018 declared that “slavery was a choice”. Unfollowed on social media by prominent celebrities and labelled “dangerous” by public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kanye West was officially cancelled. (Things are a little more complicated in 2020.)
The same year, the latest twist in West’s longtime feud with fellow American artist Taylor Swift sounded the death knell for Swift’s internet good name. West’s wife Kim Kardashian released video footage suggesting that Swift herself had agreed to a derogatory lyric West had written about her, before publicly condemning him for it. At one point, the hashtag #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty was the number one Twitter trend worldwide. “Do you know how many people have to be tweeting that they hate you for that to happen?” said Swift in the 2020 documentary Miss Americana.
In the UK, the impact of cancel culture on several public figures has seen it becoming an increasingly common phrase. In January, actor Laurence Fox was vehemently criticised for for claiming the Duchess of Sussex had not been a victim of racism on the BBC’s Question Time. “I have come to the conclusion that I may never get an acting job again without expressing ‘correct’ opinions,” he wrote.
JK Rowling has been effectively disowned by die-hard Harry Potter fans for repeatedly airing her strident views on transgender rights. In July alone, #JodieComerIsOverParty started trending on Twitter after Killing Eve actress Jodie Comer was photographed with a man who may or may not be a Republican, and UK rapper Wiley was banished from social media and dropped by his management company for anti-Semitic tweets.
The rise of right-wing cancel culture
While the left have undoubtedly taken ownership of cancel culture in 2020, the political right has carried out its fair share of high profile cancellations. The individual who has arguably done more than any other to put cancel culture on the map also happens to owe his Presidential victory to a conservative base.
Despite frequently deriding it, Donald Trump embraces cancel culture: over the years he has called for the boycott of everything from leading brands (Macy’s, Apple, Harley Davidson, HBO), to films (The Hunt), to countries (Mexico). He has also demanded the firing of innumerable journalists and has frequently fired or excluded from favour civil servants and politicians he has clashed with.
Boycott Mexico until they release our Marine. With all the money they get from the U.S., this should be an easy one. NO RESPECT!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 26, 2014
But the right’s dabbling in cancel culture is not confined to the present White House. In 2018, Disney fired Guardians of the Galaxy writer and director James Gunn from the third instalment of the franchise after old tweets that included jokes about rape and paedophilia emerged. The tweets were brought to light by alt-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, in response to Gunn’s criticisms of Donald Trump, leading to widespread speculation that the firing was politically motivated (Disney later reversed its decision and brought Gunn back).
The same year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was among the prominent Republicans calling for the firing of Democratic Senator – and former comedian – Al Franken following allegations of sexual assault. Franken denied all charges, but was forced to resign.
What’s Really Behind the Left’s ‘Cancel Culture’
After Bernie Sanders won the Nevada Democratic caucuses, liberal icon and MSNBC stalwart Chris Matthews compared Sanders’s victory to Nazi Germany’s invasion of France. Immediately after his comments, the leftist mob came after him, demanding that he be fired. This wasn’t some neo-liberal Never-Trumpster who had been masquerading as a Republican for the last two decades. This wasn’t some celebrity air-head running his mouth in the throes of emotion. This wasn’t some lonely blogger writing uneducated opinions from his mom’s basement. This was Chris Matthews, who wrote speeches for Jimmy Carter, spent six years as Tip O’Neil’s chief of staff, was the DC bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, wrote books about the Kennedys, had been the host of Hardball for over twenty years, and had the thrill of Obama’s presidency run down his leg.
But you make one clumsy historical analogy which implies America’s leading Socialist might be as bad for America as the Nazi army was for France and suddenly you’re out of favor with your own constituency and you’re required to grovel to keep your job.
The left has been demanding conservatives grovel and be fired at least since Richard Nixon dared to call Alger Hiss a communist. But that wasn’t merely a reaction, that was a strategy. The left wanted power and shutting up conservatives was their strategy for grabbing it. But why would leftists try to silence other leftists? Back in the day, if a leftist strayed off the reservation, his comrades would ignore the sin so the sinner could keep spewing his leftist nonsense the other 99% of the time. Those days seem to be gone.
For centuries, philosophers have argued that information we receive directly from the world is a better and more reliable source of knowledge than information we receive indirectly from the testimony of others. This reliable kind of direct knowledge is gathered from personal observations, personal experience, and our own reasoning. Direct knowledge isn’t infallible, of course. If I told you I saw Bigfoot on a moonless night running through a thick wood, you might question the accuracy of my observation. My personal experiences might be too narrow to support my general conclusions. My reasoning might be based on bad premises.
Despite the potential weaknesses of direct knowledge, the information we get from the testimony of others, known as indirect knowledge, is always worse. Assuming this testimony comes from someone with direct knowledge, that direct knowledge carries the same weaknesses that our own direct knowledge bears. Plus, as the testimony is passed from person to person, the information it conveys can be distorted by the process of transmission. On top of that, there’s always the chance the person sharing their “knowledge” is actually a liar and his testimony is intended to deceive.
Philosophers understood these weaknesses, so they built in systems and principles to measure the reliability of knowledge gained from observation, experience, and reasoning, which I won’t get into here. They also came up with a safeguard for knowledge based on testimony. This safeguard is known as reasonableness and requires the person receiving the testimony to evaluate the character of the person who’s testifying. The testimony from a person of good character with a track record for accuracy and reliability is a far safer source of indirect knowledge than an habitual liar who regularly gets his facts wrong.
These philosophical safeguards were hammered out at a time when philosophers expected most of the knowledge people relied on to be direct; they expected people to get their hands dirty in the real world where they could observe, experiment, and reason things out for themselves. It was also a time when philosophers expected indirect knowledge to come from people who were known, whose character could be observed, whose track record could be evaluated. These included family, friends, co-workers, teachers, pastors, reporters, and magistrates who lived together in the same local area. Indirect knowledge could be relied on because the people providing it could be trusted.
As centuries have passed, these expectations have crumbled. Our connection with the world is mediated more and more through various screens–TV’s, monitors, tablets, and phones–making the vast majority of our knowledge indirect. Meanwhile, we’ve never met our sources of indirect knowledge (authors, online teachers, TV reporters, bloggers, vloggers, and talk show hosts) and have no reliable way to evaluate their character. At the moment when it’s most important for us to evaluate the sources of our indirect knowledge, we have the least access to those sources. If we don’t have access to the source of the information, the best we can do is gauge the accuracy and reliability of their reports. The reporter might be a womanizing drunk, but when he sits down to write, he’s always careful with his sources and accurate with his facts.
We’re almost there; just two more pieces to snap into the puzzle. Somewhere along this winding road, Rationalism became the king of the philosophical hill. Instead of evaluating the reliability of knowledge by examining its source, Rationalism evaluated knowledge by examining its content. If I told a rationalist I had witnessed a miracle — that I had seen a man walk on water or raise the dead — he wouldn’t waste his time evaluating my honesty, accuracy, or even sanity. Rationalism tells him that there are no such things as miracles, so he can reject my testimony without giving it a second thought.
Last piece: Rationalism is hard. It has principles and rules and forces you to think carefully about things. Post-modern America has skillfully avoided this hard work by valuing feelings over ideas. Where rationalists rejected testimony because it violated certain principles of thought and knowledge, post-moderns reject testimony because it makes them feel bad.
Now we can lay out the philosophical foundations of the mob mentality we see today. First, they’re encouraged to accept or reject the testimony of others by evaluating the content of the report, never the character of the reporter (that’s the faulty philosophical idea). Second, they’re encouraged to accept content as true only when it conforms to their own personal preferences and feelings, not because it’s accurate or consistent with stated principles (that’s the faulty application).
Here’s an example showing how this works. Congressman Adam Schiff (D-La La Land) told the country for about two years that he had seen evidence that President Donald Trump had colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election from Hillary Clinton. Then the Mueller Report came out and said there was no evidence of collusion. When Congressman Schiff later accused the president of withholding aid to Ukraine unless they helped him steal the 2020 election from Joe Biden, and did so by fictionalizing the transcript of the telephone call where this quid pro quo was floated, reasonableness would tell us not to believe a word he said. Sure, he could be telling the truth this time, but he had already forfeited his reliability, so his testimony should be rejected. Why, then, did so many people believe the Ukraine story? Because they agreed with the content of his accusations and those accusations made them feel good.
And that brings us back around to Chris Matthews. When he compared Bernie Sanders to a Nazi invasion, the people who reacted didn’t evaluate the content of Matthews’s commentary. If they had, they would’ve heard Matthews compare the inevitability of Sanders’s nomination after just three primaries to the inevitability of France’s downfall after just a couple of days of fighting. They also didn’t consider Matthews’s long and consistent support for leftism. If they had, they would have heard him say a lot of complimentary things about Sanders and they might have noticed he never said the word ‘Nazi.’ Instead, they evaluated how this commentary made them feel, realized they didn’t feel good about it, and called for Matthews to be fired.
The implications of this are serious. If you’re a liberal, you should live in constant fear because speaking one wrong (or even misunderstood) word will force you to grovel before the mob. You won’t be able to rest on your track record, either; you’ve made the people feel bad and that has consequences. If you’re a conservative, realize that you can’t reason with people anymore. You have to win their hearts without going through their minds. Understand you’re not just in a political battle, you’re in a spiritual battle and arm yourself accordingly.
Can cancel culture be cancelled?
“The Plus, Self-Help for People Who Hate Self-Help”, by the very smart and witty @greggutfeld, is on sale now. It is great, Canceling Cancel Culture. Make his book as successful as his T.V. Show. Buy it now!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2020
In 2018 the New York Times published a piece entitled ‘Everyone is Canceled’ and they had a point. Nearly 30 years after gangster Nino poured fizz over his girlfriend, it can sometimes feel as though there’s no one left for Twitter to shout at.
The big careers impeded or ended over the last few years are testament to cancel culture’s boycotting power. Comedian Roseanne Barr was fired from her own show in 2018 after a racially offensive tweet about one of Barack Obama’s advisers. In 2019 Saturday Night Live fired comedian Shane Gillis before his first appearance after podcast footage surfaced of him making racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments. Netflix has just scrapped plans for a show with comedian Chris D’Elia after multiple accusations of sexual harassment. Even Louis CK is said to have lost millions following his brief cancellation.
On the other hand, as Kanye, Taylor and Louis CK have all prominently demonstrated, it’s perfectly possible for cancelled figures to make full recoveries from their respective hashtags. Laurence Fox has arguably never been more popular. And for all the talk of JK Rowling’s views harming Harry Potter’s legacy, her book sales have boomed during the pandemic.
It is an exceptionally big leap for Twitter outrage to become the kind of total erasure envisaged by the most ardent practitioners of cancel culture. Perhaps there’s no need to panic about living in an Orwellian dystopia just yet; cancel culture can itself be cancelled.
The balance of power between the sexes is famously a battlefield, in both life and literature, and right now we’re caught in the crossfire between generations. Historically, the old imposed their traditions and moral codes on the young, but now the young are frequently calling the shots, particularly over issues of gender, sex and power. Over the last decade or so, we’ve witnessed revolutionary change. Many older men and celebrities who thought they had got away with child abuse are now in prison. We used to accept and even laugh at underage “groupies” sleeping with pop stars; now, they are unmistakably victims. We are also reappraising what the burgeoning sexual freedoms of the 1960s and 70s achieved for women, as discussed so interestingly in Virginia Nicholson’s recent How Was it For You? And with every subsequent revelation of the #MeToo movement, my 80s youth has begun to look more grotesque and unintelligible to my daughters’ generation, which is versed in notions of gender equality and consent.
It is younger people who are clearest about consent, what constitutes abuse, what may be said and by whom. Their seniors, who lived through the sexual revolution, are the ones who claim it’s complicated. This generational disconnect is about more than the Gallic storm of outrage at #MeToo from Catherine Deneuve and others, who stood up for seduction as opposed to what they saw as irritatingly puritanical, Anglo-Saxon political correctness. In a recent interview, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, said that despite being a “fanatic supporter” of #MeToo, the focus on consent had made the role of women very passive, their input “only to either concede or to deny”. Since Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, sexuality has been used as a bargaining chip, but as Gilbert asked, what about predatory female desire, “out on the prowl”?
Millennials are frequently nonplussed by their parents’ generation’s murkier approach to everything from sex to the environment. “We’re going through a complete moral earthquake,” said Andrew Marr, when I found myself sitting next to him at a dinner recently. “We’re being judged by our children as morally corrupt.”
Any policing performed by young people is surely part of a wider fight, against the horrifying extremes of the far right, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and pornography. These are worrying and challenging times. But while my daughters think it is obvious where the boundary lines are drawn, in my middle-aged and older friends I regularly detect bewilderment and even nervousness about navigating the newly drawn-up terrain. There is a sense that one might cross a linguistic or philosophical boundary by mistake, and that even with the best intentions, the border patrol might be heavily armed.
Are young people merely more vocal and influential in their criticism, because of factors like social media, or are they actually trying to censor what is being said? “I have to be very careful what I say,” admitted a university lecturer and writer friend. “I now think about the books I choose to teach, both in the context of their literary value and in the context of what might cause offence or upset.” She added, “I’m always aware that a morning classroom conversation can become an afternoon Twitter storm.”
John Sutherland, author of Offensive Literature: Decensorship in Britain, 1960-1982, suggested to me that what we are now witnessing is “re-censorship”. “It’s like Anthony Burgess’s idea that Pelagian liberalism alternates historically with Augustinian conservatism,” he said. “We move between these poles and are now heading towards the latter, at least in terms of literature.” As emeritus professor at UCL, he blames part of it on university fees: “It’s a struggle for power. Students now have power because they pay: the customer is always right.” He claims that there are many texts, such as Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, that cannot now be taught because lecturers are fearful about their students’ reactions.
But is this censorship, if older generations are freely choosing to remove books, or not publish them, based on a reaction they only anticipate from the young? The list of truly banned books is long and sometimes glorious, from Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 lesbian revelations in The Well of Loneliness to Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, outlawed in Ireland in 1960. The US has forbidden all sorts of things from Ulysses to The Catcher in the Rye. And it’s not just prudishness; the Soviet Union censored many masterpieces for political reasons, including Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Orwell’s Animal Farm. In Britain, many controversial books were decriminalized after the 1959 Obscene Publications Act was kicked into submission by the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial and the publication of Nabokov’s Lolita. All this censorship allowed for the flood of successful, previously unpublishable novels, that we saw in the 60s and 70s, such as Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
While it has always been a majority of old, white males who draw up society’s moral codes, they are now being back-footed by the young – those they deride as “snowflakes”. This is interesting and exciting and after all, the young have always changed language and opinions. It would certainly be a pity if this generation took us back to banning books like Lolita, but I’m not convinced this will happen. My own experiences with Putney leave me feeling there are plenty of young people ready to embrace controversial books, with no trigger warnings or censorship.
The irony of the cancel culture is that it argues that cultural icons are offensive while at the same time they themselves are offending large segments of the population.
Their own insensitivity is ignored while they argue for sensitivity. Ironically, those who scream loudest for tolerance are sometimes the last to display it when someone disagrees with them.
It would be unfair to ignore the fact that cultural icons can be painful. The very purpose of icons is to evoke memory and emotion. For example, before Hitler adopted the swastika as an icon of his party, it was a good luck symbol that appeared throughout American culture and even on medallions distributed by the Boy Scouts of America.
But to display that icon today as a “good luck” symbol would be thoughtless. Absolutely no one would see it as anything but a symbol of hate.
Without question, some symbols, statues, and historical icons can evoke similar thoughts and feelings today. But it appears the cancel culture expects men and women of history to either be flawless or to have lived many years ago with a value system of 2020.
Jerry Lewis was renowned for portraying a “Chinese” character in movies and skits in the 1950s and 60s. His caricature is exceedingly offensive by today’s standards, but today’s cultural sensitivity wasn’t even on the radar at that time.
It is inane to suggest that he be held accountable for a cultural value system that didn’t even exist at the time. Lewis later sponsored national telethons that raised $2.5 billion for research on muscular dystrophy. Should he be remembered as a “racist” or a philanthropist?
A list of similar individuals is lengthy. Alfred Nobel invented ballistite, a substance that made nitroglycerine more stable, thus safer to use. Ballistite ended up being used in many military applications. It was written that Nobel became “rich by finding ways to kill people faster than ever before.”
Having no intentions that his invention would eventually be used in weapons, he deeply regretted this perspective and wanted to be remembered differently. Consequently, he bequeathed over 90% of his $30 million+ estate to endow the Nobel Peace Prize. Was he a death-monger or peace-maker?
Franklin Roosevelt was at the very least unfriendly to the Jewish people and at worst an anti-Semite and he unconstitutionally interred Japanese Americans during WWII. But because of Roosevelt we have the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Social Security (like it or not), the repeal of prohibition, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that was established to control flooding and to provide electricity for thousands who didn’t have it before. Was he a racist or an innovative leader?
Henry Ford was definitely an anti-Semite and is personally named in Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Should we demand the dismantling of Ford Motor Company? In 1964, J. William Fulbright adamantly opposed the Civil Rights Act. Yet Fulbright scholarships have provided advanced research experiences to 350,000 people leading to over 150 Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. Should we demand an end to any reference to Fulbright?
None of us is without flaw. The flaws I’m talking about aren’t illegal behaviors. I’m referring instead to offensive words, behaviors, or thoughts that people may change over time as people mature and grow. The cancel culture wishes to silence anyone who might have ever said or done anything that offends them today. Absurd.
One might note that I have only called attention to white men thus far, but that should come as no surprise. Historically, it was white men who had the power to pursue great endeavors in Western culture.
But Martin Luther King and other great African-Americans who paved the way for civil rights were far from perfect. Published reports indicate that King was less than loyal to his wife. Suppose we decide at some point in the future that infidelity is as unconscionable as racism. Would this justify removing statues erected to him, changes the names of streets and schools that honored him, and ignoring King’s major contributions to the freedoms experienced by their African-American brothers and sisters? Again, absurd.
Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner and there is evidence that he recognized the inconsistency of his behavior with the words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence. But the words he penned gave rise to the eventual freedoms that non-white Americans experience today. Greatness doesn’t mean flawlessness.
We expect others to understand our mistakes in the context of our intentions and our efforts to do good. To erase history because of personal flaws is near-sighted. I would not want to only be remembered for a mistake I might have made 40 years ago. I doubt those in the cancel culture would either.
In certain communist countries like the kind the Biden Administration seems to be leading us towards, you can get an 87 year prison sentence for just saying something deemed offensive to the Ruling Elite! Lucky for this civil servant that they were lenient this time and halved her prison term to only 43 years. Is this what awaits Americans who offend the vengeful Cancel Culture of the Left who do terrible things like believe in election integrity and want answers, challenge electors, support a president, vote their conscience, exercise free choice, offer free speech or make pillows?
2020 has been a challenging year. For some challenges, such as the coronavirus, a light is appearing at the end of the tunnel. But for others, the true consequences may be only beginning to appear.
This is perhaps no more true than in the assault on political legitimacy. In 2020, this was threatened by forces on opposite sides of politics: cancel culture on the left and conspiracy theories on the right.
Each poses a serious threat, as a collapse in political legitimacy means people think the normal rules don’t apply anymore, making the world a more difficult and even dangerous place for all of us.
Weaponized Political Correctness
Jeff Deist defines Political Correctness as “the conscious, designed manipulation of language intended to change the way people speak, write, think, feel, and act, in furtherance of an agenda.” The goal of PC is to shape modern humanity into something that goes against our very nature. It destroys individualism and distinct communities and replaces our nature with mob-imposed values. It is not about good manners; it is about control.
But what happens when people refuse to be controlled? What happens when the programming fails? When people push back against PC, the mob must resort to more drastic measures. In the same way fascism emerged as a socialist’s last resort to impose their unnatural worldview, Cancel Culture emerged as a means to achieve a politically correct society. If you do not bend your knee to the mob, then the mob will unperson you.
This works remarkably well against ordinary people. But with someone like Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who imposed racist “Stop-and-Frisk” upon millions of people, there is no way to cancel him. Bloomberg’s money and financial connections shield him from being canceled. Those engaged in Cancel Culture do not fight for justice. Rather, they target vulnerable individuals and preclude them from ever redeeming themselves (assuming what they said was actually wrong). Rather than have a conversation with people who hold different opinions, the Cancel Culture mob would prefer to dehumanize their adversaries.
Cancel Culture not only harms individuals who fall in the mob’s crosshairs, it harms all of society. When you hold a view that the PC Mob may disagree with, the Herd Psychology of the canceler imposes fear upon your psyche. Because of this fear, you either don’t express your opinion or you only express your opinion around people you know to agree with you. In other words, Cancel Culture curbs public discourse and creates echo chambers. A 1996 MIT study prophetically predicted that the internet would lead to more echo chambers, areas of conversation in which no differing views are expressed.
This study indicated that echo chambers lead to increased radicalization and decreased understanding of the “other side.” In a study on links between echo chambers, radicalism, and violence, Nature Research indicates that such an atmosphere is a breeding ground for violence. People internalize their beliefs. Rather than you believing in your politics, you become your politics. If someone disagrees with your perspective, they do so with ill will according to PC culture. Society confirms this grim prediction as people become more hostile about their politics. Radical organizations like Antifa and other groups engage in violence against their political opponents. To lay it bare, politics drops its pretenses and exposes itself as the violent struggle it truly is.
Cancel Culture benefits no one. Rather, it gives a false sense of dispute resolution and gives the “canceler” a false sense of improved social status while isolating people from civil society. The time to fight back is now. First, refuse to “cancel” anyone. Don’t engage in the mob’s tactics. Talk with people with whom you disagree. Second, engage in alternative media. The State Linguistic Complex has its filthy fingers in all mainstream media. Provide your own counter-narrative. Tell the Truth. Unless we fight back against Political Correctness and Cancel Culture, discourse will die.
What is political legitimacy?
What exactly is political legitimacy and why is it important?
Let’s start with a definition of legitimacy. Legitimacy, in this context, refers to whether we should accept a decision, rule or institution.
It doesn’t require wholehearted agreement. For example, we might think a workplace decision is misguided, but decide that as an employee we should go along with it anyway.
Political legitimacy refers to the legitimacy of laws and authorities in the eyes of the people. It allows rules and public institutions to function effectively.
We will never all agree on exactly what the law should be — particularly in pluralistic societies. However, we can all agree that democratic decision-making is an appropriate way to make laws.
Of course, legitimacy has limits. If a democracy votes to enslave an ethnic minority, this wouldn’t be acceptable. Legitimacy only works when the outcomes are tolerable.
The perils of cancel and call-out culture
The terms “cancel culture” and “call-out culture” — which became ubiquitous in 2020, particularly on the political left — refer to practices of shutting down, shaming or deterring those who are perceived to speak in offensive or harmful ways.
Political analyst David Shor tweeted a summary of a Black Princeton professor’s research about the historical impact of violent protests on Democratic voting. When called out for perceived anti-Blackness, Shor apologized, but was nevertheless fired.
More recently, employees at Penguin Random House in Canada lodged an official protest at the news that a sequel to Jordan Peterson’s bestseller, 12 Rules for Life, would be published. It echoed an earlier employee-led revolt against the publication of J.K. Rowling’s new children’s book.
Stifling and shutting down controversial voices, such as Peterson and Rowling, presents two challenges to political legitimacy.
First, it prevents inclusive dialogue. Those in the minority on any issue can no longer console themselves with the fact that at least they had the opportunity to say their piece and have their views considered. Instead, they are silenced and excluded.
Second, the idea that voters on the right have not just wrong, but harmful views poses a further threat to legitimacy.
Why should progressives respect democratic outcomes — such as the victories of Republican legislators in the 2020 US elections, or Trump’s win in 2016 — if these outcomes simply reflect what they perceive as the manifestly intolerable views of millions of conservative voters?
How conspiracy theories undermine democratic legitimacy
From the opposite side of politics comes another threat: conspiracy theories.
To be sure, conspiracies do occur, but they are usually confined to close-knit groups at single organisations that excel at secrecy (for example, intelligence agencies).
Many currently popular conspiracy theories require strikingly poor reasoning practices.
Even setting aside QAnon’s wacky beliefs, the idea peddled by outgoing President Donald Trump that the US election was stolen is far-fetched. No tangible evidence has been presented for this claim.
In fact, many of the institutions certifying the result were run by Republican officials, while Republican-appointed judges have thrown out many Trump campaign cases brought to court. And though Joe Biden won the presidential contest, Democrats had an unexpectedly poor showing in other races.
If Trump’s claim was true, such a conspiracy would have to be far-reaching (including both Republicans and Democrats) and powerful (leaving no evidence), while at the same time being stunningly incompetent (having forgotten to ensure Democratic victories in Congress).
Yet, this theory is extraordinarily popular, with the vast majority of the president’s 74 million voters believing fraud changed the election outcome.
This impacts political legitimacy because a stubborn lack of respect for evidence undermines public deliberative practices. It is impossible to find points of agreement when large-scale conspiracies throw so much into question.
Conspiracies about election results also threaten democratic legitimacy. If everything is controlled by a sinister cabal, then elections are a farce.
Worse, if one’s political opponents are seen as utterly evil — for example, cannibalistic Satanic child traffickers — then not even authentic elections could legitimise their rule.
So, both conspiracy thinking and cancel culture can challenge the legitimacy of democratic decision-making.
But this is not all they have in common. Both are longstanding practices whose recent rise has been fuelled by social media. Both are personally rewarding, as they allow believers to position themselves as manifestly superior to others (the “deplorables” or “sheeple”).
Cancel culture advocates never need face uncomfortable critique because opponents can simply be cancelled or called out, derailing further discussion.
And conspiracy theorists can simply dismiss critique as part of the conspiracy, or based on falsities spread by the conspiracy.
What can be done?
Even in Australia, commentators have observed the woeful state of political deliberation and its impact on trust in institutions. In the wake of the Banking Royal Commission, for example, Commissioner Kenneth Haynes lamented
political rhetoric now resorts to the language of war, seeking to portray opposing views as presenting existential threats to society as we now know it.
Unfortunately, because these views are self-sealing, and because they attach to people’s chosen identities, there are no easy responses to them.
Perhaps the best message as we enter a new year is to remain respectful and empathetic to others.
At a base level, keep in mind that others may have legitimate concerns: conspiracies do happen and everyone has limits to what they will tolerate.
Rather than reacting with anger or mockery, or directly challenging someone’s position, it’s often best to enquire carefully into their views.
And if you disagree with them, rather than aiming to change their mind, instead try to sow a few seeds of doubt that may lead to reasonable discussion and encourage later reflection.
In the last few months, 150 high-profile authors, commentators and scholars signed an open letter in Harper’s magazine claiming that “open debate and toleration of differences” are under attack. Signatories included JK Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem and Noam Chomsky.
While prefacing their comments with support for current racial and social justice movements, the signatories argue there has been a weakening of the norms of open debate in favour of dogma, coercion and ideological conformity. They perceive
an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.
Sackings, investigations and withdrawn words
The letter’s signing by Rowling comes in the wake of widespread backlash against her controversial comments on transgender issues and womanhood.
Actor Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter” himself) joined a chorus of disapproval of her comments, arguing they erased “the identity and dignity of transgender people”. Employees at Rowling’s publisher subsequently refused to work on her forthcoming book.
The Harper’s letter invoked similar cases of what it saw as punitive overreactions to unpopular views, suggesting they formed part of a larger trend:
Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.
The reference to editors being fired is perhaps the most well-known recent incident. Last month, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Republican Senator Tom Cotton calling for the military to provide an “overwhelming show of force” to restore order in US cities during the protests over the killing of George Floyd.
The piece’s publication attracted immediate criticism for promoting hate and putting black journalists in danger. In response, the editorial page editor emphasised the newspaper’s longstanding commitment to open debate, arguing the public would be better equipped to push back against the senator’s stance if it heard his views.
This defense failed, and within days he resigned.
Push-back against push-back
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Harper’s letter has received spirited critique. Some commentators noted past cases where the signatories had themselves been censorious. Others argued that any perceived threat was overblown.
Indeed, the link the open letter makes between a repressive government and an intolerant society may seem a long bow to draw. There is a world of difference between the legal prohibition of speech and a wave of collective outrage on Twitter.
Yet, it is nevertheless worth considering whether important ethical outcomes are threatened in a culture of outrage, de-platforming and cancelling.
Some speech requires consequences, but which speech?
Almost everyone would agree some types of speech are beyond the pale. Racial slurs don’t deserve careful consideration. They require “calling out”, social censure and efforts at minimising harm.
Rather than objecting to outrage per se, the Harper’s letter asserts there is a broadening in the scope of views that attract punitive responses. This seems plausible. In recent scholarly work on the tensions between censorship and academic freedom on university campuses, both sides of the dispute acknowledge that in the current environment virtually all utterances offend someone.
Yet, perhaps there are good reasons for this broadening of scope. In each of the cases raised in the letter, there were seemingly sensible reasons for applying social sanctions. These included judgements that:
- the speech was morally wrongful
- the speech was gravely offensive
- the speech would have seriously worrying consequences. It was “unhelpful”, “harmful”, “damaging” or “divisive”.
For someone who is genuinely concerned that speech is wrong in these ways, it will seem not just morally permissible to take action against the speaker. It will feel obligatory.
Caution about consequences
But several concerns arise when we attach punitive consequences to people’s speech based on its perceived moral wrongfulness (as opposed to simply arguing it is mistaken or false).
First, claims of moral wrongfulness in a debate assume immediate urgency and distract from the debate itself. For example, let’s say in a debate about immigration, one person says something that offends another. Discussion of the original issue (immigration) will be bracketed until the issue of moral wrongdoing (the perceived slight or offence) is resolved.
Second (except in obvious cases), claims about wrongfulness, offensiveness and harmfulness are all open to debate. As philosopher John Stuart Mill once observed:
The usefulness of an opinion is itself a matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion, and requiring discussion as much, as the opinion itself.
Third, allegations of wrongdoing create heat. Few people respond constructively to allegations of wrongdoing. They often retaliate in kind, escalating the conflict.
In a less politicized environment, a contentious claim might be treated as a contribution to a debate to be considered on its merits. But in our current climate, the same claim creates only angry allegations flying in both directions. As a result, the claim isn’t considered or debated.
Should this worry us?
If we think a person’s view is wrong and immoral, we might suppose there is no great loss about a debate being derailed. But there are genuine ethical concerns here.
First, public deliberation is a source of legitimacy. The fact that different views are widely heard and inclusively considered provides a reason for accepting collective decisions.
Democracy itself assumes citizens can hear different arguments, evidence and perspectives. If significant parts of the political spectrum are no longer tolerated, then social institutions lose this important type of legitimacy.
Second, listening to others with different opinions, and engaging with them, can help us understand their views and develop more informed versions of our own positions.
Third, shaming people can cause a “persuasive boomerang” to occur. When people feel others are trying to control them, they can become even more attached to the view others are trying to combat.
None of these concerns categorically rule out attaching punishing consequences to hateful or harmful speech. But they do imply the open letter has a point worth serious attention. Seeing mistaken views as intolerable speech carries genuine ethical costs.
The ‘cancel culture’ war is really about old elites losing power in the social media age
If critics of “cancel culture” are worried about opinions, posts and writings being constantly patrolled by a growing group of haters, then I am afraid they are extremely late to the party. I cannot remember a time where I have written or posted anything without thinking: “How many ways can this possibly be misconstrued, and can I defend it if it were?” It’s not even a conscious thought process now, it’s instinct.
Has this made me a more cautious writer? Sure. Has it made me take fewer risks, with my eye constantly on the restive gallery? Possibly. But is it evidence of some new age of moral puritanical purge culture? Not really.
The people who are waiting to pile on you, dox you (spread private information about you online with malicious intent) and get you fired broadly have little in common apart from the urge to tear someone down. It’s an impulse that brings together all manner of specific sinister prejudice, keyboard activists and general garden-variety jerks. It’s a broad church. All of humanity is here.
But among the alleged cancellers are also those who, until recently, had no means of chiming into conversations about their own fates, and still don’t have the platforms or access to shape such conversations. It is natural that they find a collective activist home on the internet.
It’s still the main tool for challenging editorial decisions around publishing accused sexual harassers. And it’s often still the means by which racist incidents and police brutality towards minorities is circulated and amplified. Think of it as an unofficial ombudsman by groups who have little or no representation in newsrooms, boardrooms and political offices.
It can be hard sometimes to distinguish these groups from the general din of anarchic censure – but it’s naive at best, and disingenuous at worst, to claim they are the engine behind a new age of intolerant orthodoxy. Furores about such changes in orthodoxy have been around for as long as there has been any sort of challenge to mainstream conventions by new entrants.
In the United States, the panic about political correctness was triggered by a group of new identities – women and people of colour – that were starting to advance notions of sexual and racial equality. In a way, cancel culture has existed for a long time, but the panic around it is renewed every time walls between discourse-makers and discourse-consumers are lowered.
And this is a good thing. The less that elites are cloistered away, the better. So, much of the liberal panic about new ostensibly corrosive phenomena such as populism or post-truth politics is really old panic about the incursion of new forces into elite domains.Whether it’s Breitbart News or social media viral campaigns, these new forces are just the latest way political narratives are being wrested away from traditional actors.
It could be a letter in Harper’s by a variety of high-profile writers and academics decrying cancel culture (without naming it directly); or similarly minded writers and thinkers decamping to new journalistic platforms to get away from “enemies” of free inquiry. But what is really unfolding here is a cohort of established influencers grappling with the fact they are losing control over how their work is received. Something old, constantly threatened and triggered by something new.
And this latest something new is so vast, so varied – and unfolding at such great speed – that it’s impossible to classify under one ideological category. What the expansion and digitisation of the public space has done over the past decade is blur the lines between the public and the private, between personal liability and that of employers, and between what is politics and business. In just one example, the religious scholar and documentary maker Reza Aslan recently recounted how, after he used profanity in tweeting disparagingly about Donald Trump, he was dropped by CNN. He said he was secretly told there were commercial reasons related to CNN’s access to the White House, and potential mergers that needed regulatory blessing.
There is a certain narcissism in collapsing all these different jeopardies into one threat to hallowed liberal spaces. It’s parochial to witness the dramatic escalation in everything from the manipulation of elections to the industrialisation of authoritarian regimes’ social-media propaganda, and conclude that the main problem we have is an assault on free expression by a very particular angry mob of a certain political persuasion. It merely serves to expose the self-absorption of parts of the intellectual elite.
As a pandemic and a global anti-racism movement unsettle us and force us to think deeply about how our societies perpetuate an inequality that threatens the lives of those on the sharp end of law enforcement and poor healthcare access, our “thinkers” show us that their definition of a crisis is far removed from the real world. This solipsism about cancel culture proves in itself the need for more democratization, and less reverence for those who look at a world fundamentally changing, but see only how it is changing for themselves.
Cancel culture is about power — who has it and who wants to be heard
“One of (the left’s) political weapons is ‘cancel culture’ — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America,” President Donald Trump said in a July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore. That’s a rich statement. Before Trump won the 2016 presidential election — that is, before he assumed the highest office in the country — he was a cancel culture acolyte. It’s only been since he entered the White House that he’s become one of its biggest critics. “Trump has long railed against ‘political correctness.’ But he has also tried for years to get people and entities punished or banished for what he considers objectionable words and acts,” writes my CNN colleague Daniel Dale in a piece that itemizes some of Trump’s cancellation attempts. “Trump has explicitly advocated cancellations, boycotts and firings on numerous occasions — often simply because he doesn’t like something his target has said. “This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t instances of overblown policing by those on the left. Rather, it’s to appeal for a sense of proportion: Some are articulating righteous anger; others, such as the President, are just afraid of a bit of accountability.
CANCEL CULTURE: THE GOOD, THE BAD, & ITS IMPACT ON SOCIAL CHANGE
A few months ago, I was asked to speak about shame and privilege at an event in Santa Cruz, a predominantly liberal and progressive beach town in California. Multiple white women approached me afterwards about their fears to address privilege within their communities or online businesses. One of the comments that stuck out the most was made by a white woman who seemed genuinely interested in being an ally to women of color. “I’m afraid that if I say or ask the wrong thing, I’ll…get…cancelled,” she quietly admitted.
I spent the next few days thinking about what it means to be “canceled,” specifically how it’s causing people to live in shame and denial as a way of self-preservation — an effort to diminish their chances of being called out. And while I have my own views on white spiritual feminism, it appears to be too easy for most white women to disregard the suffering of people of color.
We live in an era where we expect “wokeness” from our peers, the cultural expectation to be socially aware, particularly in what we speak up against. If you aren’t “woke,” you’re at risk of being “cancelled,” or experience a certain level of “woke bashing.” Cancel culture has infiltrated the very fabric of our society, so much so that some people, like the woman who came up to me in Santa Cruz, are afraid to learn, engage, and speak up. You can’t read the news or flip through a gossip magazine without reading about a celebrity losing a TV show or brand partnership deal (effectively being “cancelled”) as a result of problematic behavior.
Cancel culture has been incredibly effective at combating sexism, racism, or any other type of abuse or harmful wrongdoing to others.
In my opinion, it’s important to acknowledge first and foremost the good that has come from cancel culture. In the New York Times research piece about cancel culture, Lisa Nakamura, professor at the University of Michigan studying the intersection of digital media and race, gender, and sexuality, defines cancel culture as “a cultural boycott…. It’s an agreement not to amplify, signal boost, give money to.” Essentially, when someone has said or done problematic things, either in the present or past, “the people” have the ability to stop supporting them and their work by effectively “canceling” them. Cancel culture has been incredibly effective at combating sexism, racism, or any other type of abuse or harmful wrongdoing to others. It’s held people accountable for their actions in ways that wasn’t possible in the past. It’s prevented shitty people from getting away with doing or saying shitty things.
Cancel culture demands social change and addresses the deep inequalities in keeping the oppressed oppressed. In 2016, Hollywood power couple Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith boycotted the Oscars, expressing outrage over #OscarsSoWhite, a movement started by April Reign to address the racial inequalities within the Academy Awards. In 2015-16, all of the actors nominated for lead and supporting roles were white. While the Smiths received some initial backlash for “cancelling” their subscription to the Oscars, it resulted in real social change. In 2019, the Oscars set a record for the most wins by black nominees ever.
In a world where we repost moral outrage without the necessary due diligence, it’s important we read between the lines before we effectively “cancel” someone.
Political writer Amanda Marcotte posed the begged question in a piece she wrote for Salon, “If we had a justice culture, would we even need to worry about cancel culture?” When we are unable to rely on a justice system to punish those who have committed a crime, or expressed racial or sexist behaviors, we the people turn to cancel culture for retribution. Take Harvey Weinstein, the once mega producer who was able to dodge lawsuits and sexual abuse accusations for over 25 years. It wasn’t until public outcry and pressure through social media, as a result of the #MeToo movement, that the police finally got involved. In 2018, Harvey Weinstein was charged with rape and several other counts of sexual abuse. In this case, cancel culture impacted justice culture.
Besides highlighting racial and societal inequalities, cancel culture can also have a powerful impact on brands we support and how we consume their products. Diet Prada is an Instagram account that calls out fashion inequalities and copy cats. While it usually pays strong attention to brand replicas, it’s been able to address and combat major issues with fashion powerhouses like Dolce & Gabbana. Their latest #BoycottDolceAndGabbana was a response to the brand’s prejudice and racist comments against the Chinese community. It gained support from Chrissy Teigen and Miley Cyrus, and ended up costing the fashion brand $2M in just a few days.
As we shift towards a more politically correct society, holding accountable the biggest oppressors, it’s socially expected of us to be more aware about the things we say and the way we act. I believe calling out problematic, deeply hurtful, and damaging behavior positively impacts our society. By being able to express moral outrage, cancel culture has allowed for power dynamics to start to change. The people in power are still mostly white, male, and rich — but people of color, women, and other marginalized folks are finally able to take a seat at the table — taking hold of their power with every tweet.
If we had a justice culture, would we even need to worry about cancel culture?
I believe in its positive impact, but cancel culture can also get ugly, and isn’t as black and white as I have just possibly portrayed it to be. We have to allow individuals to learn from their mistakes. “Woke bashing” individuals who are willing to learn and have a desire to be an ally to marginalized communities, doesn’t serve the collective pursuit of equality; it only causes alienation and shame. I believe we need to push for critical thinking, and encourage people to read beyond the headlines and potential media manipulation. In a world where we repost moral outrage without the necessary due diligence, it’s important we read between the lines before we effectively “cancel” someone.
As Jameela Jamilh tweeted a few months ago: “Nobody is born perfectly ‘woke.’” And we shouldn’t expect people to be. Wokeness a continuous process of learning and unlearning. It’s about showing up, even when it makes you uncomfortable. It’s about turning fear of criticism into impactful dialogue and actionable change. I love that Jameela calls herself a “feminist-in-progress” too. To me, the term represents wanting to create a better and more equal world, while acknowledging progress and the mistakes that will be made along the way.
After spending a few days thinking about cancel culture, I reached out to the woman in Santa Cruz.
“I totally understand your fear of being ‘cancelled,’ but what I think is more important is shifting your relationship with criticism. Learn to embrace it. If certain communities call you out, that’s a good thing, it means there’s an opportunity to do more learning and, ultimately, allow more healing and acceptance to unfold. Embracing criticism allows you to be a true ally to people you wish to serve.”
Simple Ways We Can Fight Cancel Culture and Defend Freedom of Speech in an Interview with Peter Boghossian
For more than a decade, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, founder of AHA Foundation, has been promoting freedom of speech. Recently, she’s been on the front line defending that right against proponents of cancel culture. This work’s importance skyrocketed this year, amidst the rise of cancel culture.
Why has cancel culture swarmed through the media in 2020? What role does critical thinking play in the fight against this ideology? What can each one of us do to stop it? We reached out to Peter Boghossian, a renowned philosophy professor at Portland State University and co-author of the book How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide to find answers to these questions.
AHA Foundation: People have varying definitions of cancel culture. How would you define and explain cancel culture to someone who is unfamiliar with it?
Peter Boghossian: The best definition of cancel culture is from New Discourses’ Social Justice Encyclopedia:
“Cancellation” or “cancel culture” is largely understood as an aspect and, indeed, an escalation of “call-out culture,” in which a public figure is found to have said or done something problematic and is then called out for it, most commonly on social media. This leads to mass outrage and demands for a boycott of the individual’s work, their firing from their job or work opportunities, or the retraction of invitations to events, or outright cancellation of their event. One would be immediately forgiven for identifying it with what it is: a modern, social-media-driven instantiation of Maoist-style struggle sessions in which problematic individuals are subjected to mass public shame, forced to apologize, and then shamed further.
One would be immediately forgiven for identifying it (cancel culture) with what it is: a modern, social-media-driven instantiation of Maoist-style struggle sessions…
AHA Foundation: Cancel culture is something you and our founder have pointed to as a threat to our freedoms. Its proponents use shaming and threats to silence opposing views in public debate. What, in your opinion, are drivers behind the rise of cancel culture from a fringe issue to a wide-spread phenomenon? Why should we all be concerned about it?
Peter Boghossian: The rise of Critical Social Justice is directly responsible for the rise of cancel culture. And Critical Social Justice arose as a direct result of certain academic disciplines in the humanities. Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and I refer to these fields of academic study as “Grievance Studies,” where the goal is to manufacture grievances about literally everything, but identity in particular. (For more on this, see Helen and James’ book, Cynical Theories.)
Cancel culture, however, is just one manifestation of this insidious grievance-based worldview, and I think it’s one we’ve focused on too much. Cancel culture is only one expression of a nasty suite of ideologies that functions like a religion, others are antiracism, cultural appropriation, (academic) decolonization, intellectual violence, identity politics, inclusion, etc.
AHA Foundation: In your lectures on critical thinking, you say that learning “techniques” required for critical thinking is the easy part. Having the right attitude—being open to hearing opposing ideas and willing to reconsider your own thought process—is much more important and harder to achieve.
What do we, as a society now, seem to be lacking—the knowledge about the critical thinking techniques, the right attitude, or both? What factors have contributed to this deficiency in the U.S.?
Peter Boghossian: There are two components to critical thinking (CT): a skill set and an attitude. The basic skill set can be taught in around 25 hours. It includes methods of reasoning and ways of thinking through problems like analysis, inference, explanation, interpretation, evaluation, etc. (For more here, see Peter Facione’s “Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction.”)
The attitudinal component, however, is entirely distinct. It’s best summed up as a willingness to revise one’s beliefs. If one is really good at analyzing and making reliable inferences, for example, but unwilling to change one’s mind as a result of one’s inquiry, then what’s the point of developing the skill set?
Having a CT skill without developing and nurturing relevant attitudinal dispositions is even worse than not having the skill set! Developing CT skills absent the disposition to revise one’s beliefs will make one better at rationalizing bad conclusions. In other words, if you are good at coming up with reasons to justify your beliefs, this will be true independent of whether or not those beliefs are true or false.
Consequently, you’ll be more likely to convince yourself that a false conclusion is true because you’ll have good reasons to lend your belief to the conclusion. Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, has written about this extensively, and it is one of the most important things to realize about CT.
Finally, while some individuals lack a CT skill set, what we are collectively lacking is understanding how to value the right things. We need to understand that values are rationally derivable and that they enable us to use the fruits of our inquiry to improve our lives.
One way to begin this vast and ambitious moral journey is to start talking to each other again. We need to communicate across moral and political divides and really listen to and understand how people who have different views came to their conclusions. Engaging in this process is both a skill and an attitude, and it’s something we need to reclaim if we want to constructively move forward and improve the world we share.
We need to communicate across moral and political divides and really listen to and understand how people who have different views came to their conclusions.
AHA Foundation: You also argue that we need to be humble about our own gaps in knowledge, meaning we must be comfortable saying “I don’t know.” In the era of ideologically-driven opinions and self-affirming echo chambers, there seems to be no room for doubt and humility. How do we change this? Where do we start?
Peter Boghossian: Great question. We’ve created a culture in which saying “I don’t know” is met with ridicule. One consequence of this is because individuals don’t want to endure ridicule, social stigma, and perhaps even name calling, people pretend to know things they don’t know. This is particularly disturbing in the political realm, when politicians are excoriated for admitting they don’t know something, so they offer a response that they think people want to hear but whose outcome is based, if it’s based in anything, on intuition or what they think people want to hear as opposed to evidence.
Rather than a sea change, we need to think in increments. How do we move the needle just a little bit? When we conceptualize the problem of how to make people comfortable enough to say “I don’t know” in tiny steps, the solution becomes less daunting.
Don’t try and change other people, change yourself. Change begins with you. Start by publicly stating, “I don’t know” when you don’t know something, lauding others for doing the same, and teaching your children that people who treat them negatively for saying they don’t know something are likely insecure or have fallen prey to a dilapidated moral system.
Finally, it’s most important for those in positions of power or authority to say “I don’t know” when they don’t know. This acts as a modelling behavior, makes it acceptable and good to state you don’t know, and nudges the culture to view admission of one’s ignorance as a virtue.
Change begins with you. Start by publicly stating, “I don’t know” when you don’t know something…
AHA Foundation: Research for your thesis focused on teaching critical thinking and moral reasoning to prison inmates in Oregon, with the intention to decrease ongoing criminal behavior. Was there anything in your findings that you think can be applied in society today?
Peter Boghossian: Yes. A lesson from Plato’s Theaetetus: people don’t knowingly do bad things. They act the way they do based on the information they have. If they had different information they’d likely act differently.
The problem, however, isn’t merely getting accurate information to people; it’s changing the mindset that they think exposure to certain pieces of information or to listening to certain views is unimportant. Think about this in terms of an unwillingness to entertain different views with regard to people valuing belief revision. If you think your moral intuitions are correct, why seek out alternatives or challenges?
We can apply this to society today by thinking about how we can help people value belief revision. Specifically, how can we help people embrace the following proposition: “I will be a better person not if I believe some particular conclusion, but if I do the best job I can to think honestly and sincerely about an issue and change my mind if my view is in error.”
AHA Foundation: In hopes to protect and promote free speech and constructive debate, many writers, artists, and academics have stepped forward and signed The Harper’s letter and more recently, The Philadelphia Statement, two open letters standing up for free speech. Is this enough? What other actions need to be taken to defend open society from this dangerous phenomenon?
Peter Boghossian: I signed the Philadelphia Statement because I think it’s important to take a public stance on issues essential to the functioning of civil society. Statements like these, however, are not enough to defend civilization from the dangerous, illiberal forces that are sweeping over it. We need far, far more than just signatories on a letter.
To quote Ronald Reagan, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” And to maintain our freedoms—press, assembly, speech—we need perpetual vigilance. This vigilance begins in pre-service teacher education programs (college and university programs that confer teaching certificates), and extends to K-12 and then university classes. Currently, we’re not just failing to educate teachers and students in civics, we’re teaching them to obsessively and exclusively focus on our country’s negatives and shortcomings, particularly with regard to race and gender. Yes, much work lies ahead of us, but liberal democracy provides us with the tools and mechanisms to continue to bend the moral arc toward justice.
Currently, we’re not just failing to educate teachers and students in civics, we’re teaching them to obsessively and exclusively focus on our country’s negatives and shortcomings…
AHA Foundation: Recently, you wrote about the importance of not only critical thinking but of public debate as well. How can we use debates to help break echo chambers and limit polarization in society?
Peter Boghossian: I don’t think debates are the best way to break echo chambers and limit polarization per se, but I do think conversation is. Specifically, teaching people how to have conversations across seemingly incommensurable moral divides.
One reason conversation is important is because it allows the possibility of understanding people who hold views different from ours as people, and not as existential threats. When we see people as people, and not moral monsters, compromise becomes far more likely than if we wall up in our moral ecosystems and view those with different opinions as existential threats.
Another reason conversation is so important is because we could be wrong about our beliefs, and if we’re wrong then conversation coupled with honest self-reflection affords us an opportunity to correct a mistaken view. This is yet another problem with the censorious wave sweeping our country in general and our universities in particular—it robs us all of the opportunity to engage beliefs contrary to our own, and thus to reflect on the truth or falsity of our belief-life and bring our views into alignment with reality.
When we see people as people, and not moral monsters, compromise becomes far more likely than if we wall up in our moral ecosystems and view those with different opinions as existential threats.
AHA Foundation: In a book you wrote with James Lindsay, How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, published in September last year, you offer practical techniques for constructive conversations, including those on issues many of us find too difficult to initiate or carry on— issues such as race, poverty, immigration, or gun control. Were there personal experiences that led you to decide that this book is urgently needed?
Peter Boghossian: No. It wasn’t personal experience. I was alarmed by the creeping collapse of civilization. I also know that the root manifestation of the problem was a breakdown in discourse. How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide is the culmination of a lifetime of cross-disciplinary scholarship, from hostage negotiations to applied epistemology to cult exiting. It is a way out of the problems plaguing us.
As ‘cancel culture’ activism peaks, big tech and its algorithms quietly fuel the flames
By now, we’ve all heard of “cancel culture” — a form of social media- supported in some ways by activists as a tool for achieving social change.
But while much of the outrage has been driven by legitimate groups, experts say modern technology makes it easier than ever to destroy companies or ruin careers.
Algorithms developed by big tech companies have become the gasoline on the flames, bringing the complaints of a few to the attention of millions, often with the help of media coverage.
Susan Campbell, a lecturer in the Communication, Film and Media Studies Department at the University of New Haven, says savvy social media users can easily create a firestorm with memes and “pithy hashtags.”
“It mostly starts with social media influencers taking up a cause. If I’m angry at, say, American Airlines, I, a savvy user of social media with shockingly few followers/friends on Twitter/Instagram/TikTok/Facebook will find someone more established who can spread the word, and then I will sit back and hope it takes off,” she said.
Some cancel culture campaigns are driven by up-to-the-minute outrage, while others are dredged up from decades past.
For example, Equinox and the Miami Dolphins were “canceled” for a few weeks last summer after it was revealed that owner Stephen Ross had held a Trump fundraiser at his Hamptons estate.
Another cancel culture campaign called for late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon to be fired after a video of him in blackface more than 20 years ago suddenly surfaced. Fallon wound up apologizing.
Ultimately, the media chatter waned, and Ross and Fallon retained their fame and fortune.
More recently, Goya Foods, the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the country, faced a backlash including a threatened boycott after CEO Robert Unanue praised Trump during a White House event last week.
Controversy, meanwhile, continues to swirl around national monuments and U.S. military bases honoring Confederate leaders, with many activists calling for statues to be taken down and bases to be renamed.
“The thing is, technology is amoral; anyone can use it,” Dennis Santiago, a global risk and financial analyst, told Fox News. “Cancel culture is merely another form of an advertising campaign that is using these platforms for destructive versus constructive purposes.”
Cancel culture is the process of banding together to publicly shame celebrities, corporations, or movements that are deemed by some to be offensive — not only to demand an apology or seek some form of accountability but squeezing the business or personality financially.
Outrage spreads so quickly across the internet that brands and people often struggle to respond fast enough to limit the damage. As a campaign takes off, it sometimes draws news coverage, which fuels the fire.
While clearly peaking now, the movement has been simmering since around 2014 when it was referred to as “call-out culture.” Experts say the more aggressive cancel culture had its first big social media boost from YouTube – the Google-owned video platform.
Hashtags have since come to play a pivotal role. In particular, #isoverparty has come to be known as the go-to tag format for cancel culture in the Twitterverse.
It first seeped into the scene via K-pop performers in 2015 before becoming a 2020 U.S. cultural phenomenon.
“These hashtags influence the news cycle and result in stories that the mainstream media covers. Instead of having a free and open debate of ideas, people who support the canceling will try to get you doxxed, fired, thrown out of school, and ruin your life,” said Adam Weiss, CEO of the New York-based AMW Public Relations. “Cancel culture will continue as long as the media continues to act as a willing partner.”
But at the same time, dueling hashtags also arise – #DojaCatIsNotOverParty – which merely keeps the momentum going by causing further disarray and hostilities. The algorithms push out tweets and Facebook posts that spawn the most engagement – which often ends up as the most savage responses – and advertising dollars for the Silicon Valley powerhouses.
As The Conversation, an independent and academic review publication, points out, “out of millions of tweets, posts, videos, and articles; social media users can be exposed to only a handful.” “So platforms write algorithms that curate news feeds to maximize engagement; social media companies, after all, want you to spend as much time on their platforms as possible,” the report notes. “Outrage is the perfect negative emotion to attract attention and engagement — and algorithms are primed to pounce. One person tweeting her outrage would normally fall largely on deaf ears. But if that one person can attract enough initial engagement, algorithms will extend that individual’s reach by promoting it to like-minded individuals. A snowball effect occurs, creating a feedback loop that amplifies the outrage.”
Earlier this year, in honor of Black History Month, Barnes and Noble announced a “Diverse Editions” initiative. This entailed changing the ethnicities of characters featured on classic book covers – and was poised to include Native American and Black representations for the “Wizard of Oz,” and darker skin tones on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”
Yet as The Telegraph underscored, the novels in question were themselves chosen based on an algorithm “that identified 12 classic novels which make no reference to the race of their main characters, as if skin color were a superficial element when writing a character.”
The endeavor was soon canceled by America’s largest bookseller, which was forced to respond to those very same algorithms that spawned the cancel culture and accusations of “fake diversity” in the first place.
Algorithms, advertising, and big tech money-making aside, there are other financial interests in the cancel culture arena.
“Every time you read a headline about a brand being canceled, that brand has to spend millions of dollars in consulting fees for a crisis or P.R. firm, legal fees, management consulting fees, contractor or vendor fees, design,” said Kris Ruby, Branding Consultant and CEO of Ruby Media Group, a New York PR agency. “These cancellations cost brands millions to pivot – and every time a small business is canceled, the likelihood of them coming back is even harder because they don’t have access to the same capital source for revival.”
Companies targeted by cancel culture can – if they have the financial means – hire specialty “reputation management” companies squash adverse search results out of the first or second pages on Google, or create their own social media pages and accounts to generate more positive search results.
Competing businesses sometimes fan the flames of the questionable or false narratives. Earlier this year, soon after the Houseparty app surged in popularity as a communications tool amid the coronavirus lockdown – reports emerged encouraging users to cancel the app, claiming it had been “hacked.”
The developers later said the “rumor” had been part of a smear campaign aimed at harming the company’s bottom line.
Some contend that big-tech’s string-pulling has reached a point of perpetuating cyber-bullying in cases that in years past would merely highlight diverging points of view.
Earlier this month, more than a hundred high-profile academics, authors, activists and artists – from Noam Chomsky and Salman Rushdie to J.K. Rowling and Garry Kasparov – penned an open letter in Harper’s magazine challenging the mob mentality behind cancel culture and its “intolerance.”
But that triggered a backlash to the backlash, with many denouncing the letter and calling for more cancelations.
Santiago, the global risk analyst, said cancel culture has almost become bigger than the platforms themselves.
“In internet space, these techniques can grow rapidly in what is called ‘viral storms,'” he said. “Platforms are presently nearly helpless in managing these storms because they propagate outside the business control systems of these companies. This is why companies like Facebook and Twitter have struggled to create new algorithms to counter nefarious uses of their technology after the fact. They never anticipated this type of misuse of their infrastructure.”
Despite raising concerns over the protection of free speech, cancel culture has been praised for bringing about fast, necessary change by bringing to light defamatory actions and behaviors by people and businesses.
Where it goes from here remains to be seen.
“The problem with cancel culture is that it is a moving target and constantly changing,” Ruby said. “It is based around individual opinions. Therefore, it is very hard to predict what would be canceled next.”
I went into this article with a couple of goals in mind. One was to gain a better understanding of the whole cancel culture movement. I believe I have done that. I have done extensive research on the subject. I have quoted far more sources than I had anticipated, which shows exactly how complex the subject truly is. The second goal was to discover who was pulling the strings in the movement. That has proven to be a much more difficult task. There appears to be more than one source for the movement. One thing I was surprised is that I never once came across George Soros’s name in my search. There does appear to be some consensus that big tech is at least partially behind the movement. It also seems to be that the far left seems to be also involved. I believe this lack of tolerance of alternate views is mainly the response to the left’s inability to formulate a coherent working plan for our country. The problem is, that their agenda is not supported by reality. People like AOC and Bernie Sanders just don’t seem to be grounded in reality. So their answer is vitriol and cancellation.
telegraph.co.uk, “Cancel culture: what is it, and how did it begin? What started as a throwaway line in a movie is now a movement – but what does being ‘cancelled’ actually mean?” By Susannah Goldsbrough; the guardian.com, “are millenials really driving ‘cancel culture’ – or is it their overcautious critics? Older generations argue that young people’s insistence on equality in all things – including books – threatens to stifle free speech. But is that always true?” By Sofka Zinovieff; the citizen.com, ” The Cancel Culture,” By Greg Moffatt; usmessageboard.com, “Is The Cancel Culture of the Left Leading Us To This?” theconversation.com, “Conspiracy theories on the right, cancel culture on the left: how political legitimacy came under threat in 2020,” By Hugh Breakey;” theguardian.com, “The ‘cancel culture’ war is really about old elites losing power in the social media age,” By Nesrine Malik; cnn.com, “Cancel culture is about power — who has it and who wants to be heard,” By Brandon Tensley; triplepundit.com, “IBM Gets It Right on Cancel Culture and Corporate Responsibility,” By Tina Casey; vogue.co.uk, “Cancel Culture Is So Toxic For Our Mental Health,” By Lily Silverton; onourmoon.com, “CANCEL CULTURE: THE GOOD, THE BAD, & ITS IMPACT ON SOCIAL CHANGE,” BY Alexandra D’Amour;
theconversation.com, “Is cancel culture silencing open debate? There are risks to shutting down opinions we disagree with,” By Hugh Breakey; americanthinker.com, “What’s Really Behind the Left’s ‘Cancel Culture’,” By Steve Mateucci; christianpost.com, ” The truth behind cancel culture’s view of truth, freedom of expression, and gender neutrality,” By Jason Jimenez; patriotpost.us, “The Truth Behind Cancel Culture: The story of leftists boycotting a Hispanic food brand over disagreement with Trump,” By Willie Richardson; totalcelnews.com, “The frenzy of unrelenting online bullying further destroys the mental health of those already suffering, and everyone has a role to play,” By Lindsay Dodgson; spiked-online.com, “Who’s behind the war on statues? This mob iconoclasm is being encouraged by America’s self-loathing elites,” By Sean Collins; thefederalist.com, “How The Left Is Weaponizing Cancel Culture To Politicize Children’s Books,” By Anonymous; the advocates.org, “Cancel Culture: Its Causes and Its Consequences,” By T.J. Roberts; politico.com, “Americans tune in to ‘cancel culture’ — and don’t like what they see,” By Ryan Lizza; staugustine.com, “Bozelko column: Cancel culture is a relic of slavery,” By Chandra Bozelko; theahafoundation.org, “Simple Ways We Can Fight Cancel Culture and Defend Freedom of Speech in an Interview with Peter Boghossian,” By Peter Boghossian; foxnews.com, “As ‘cancel culture’ activism peaks, big tech and its algorithms quietly fuel the flames: While much of it is said to be driven by social-justice movements and momentum, social media and big tech are pushing a narrative,” By Hollie McKay;
The truth behind cancel culture’s view of truth, freedom of expression, and gender neutrality
Who would have ever thought that Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss, the most beloved children’s writer, would both undergo a sweeping change due to cancel culture?
Back in 2019, a research paper entitled “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books” was published. The findings revealed that only 2% of the characters featured in Dr. Seuss’s books were “people of color” and that Dr. Seuss used racially insensitive imagery when depicting certain ethnicities. Feeling the mounting pressure by cancel culture, the Dr. Seuss Enterprise put out a statement admitting that Dr. Seuss indeed “portrayed people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” In view of this, several of Dr. Seuss’s books were pulled from the shelves and will no longer be published.
And then, there’s Mr. Potato Head. Following the controversy over dropping the “Mister” in Mr. Potato Head and making only a gender-neutral spud, Hasbro Company stated they are keeping Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head but will be adding a ‘Create your own Potato Head Family.’ One report specified that the “line will be launched in the fall, and celebrates the many faces of families – allowing kids to imagine and create their own Potato Head family from 2 large potato bodies, 1 small Potato Baby, and 42 accessories.”
Hasbro initially did this because they didn’t want to be promoting gender norms or gender binary (male and female) restrictions on children. Hasbro also mentioned they didn’t want to force children to play with a limited family model (mom and a dad). The company says they want to keep up “with the changing of the times.”
The cancellation of Dr. Seuss’s books and the neutralization of Mr. Potato Head are just two recent examples of the power cancel culture has over American society. But is cancel culture making society worse or better?
Allow me to expose you to the three “truths” of cancel culture to see for yourself how dangerous this philosophy is to our very existence.
The truth behind cancel culture’s truth
Cancel culture is rooted in postmodernity, a philosophical belief system that asserts truth is subjective. However, if truth is subjective, then there is no objectivity of truth. And if there is no objective truth, then why should anyone listen to cancel culture? You see, cancel culture can’t maintain truth is relative, and yet, at the same time and in the same sense, universally impose its relative truth on everyone else. You don’t have to be a philosopher to see how cancel culture’s view of truth is self-contradictory. Therefore, by its own admission, cancel culture cancels itself out.
The truth behind cancel culture’s freedom of expression
There’s also the problem of cancel culture determining what “offensive” and “inoffensive” speech or expression is. If there is no absolute truth, how can cancel culture be absolutely certain what is “offensive” and “inoffensive”? Here’s the real truth. The steps cancel culture is taking to purge “freedom of expression” are harming our society. It’s not making it better. Recently, Harper’s Magazine published an “open letter” stating this very thing. In the second paragraph, the letter addresses the dangers of cancel culture by saying, “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.”
Freedom of expression (as we know it) will no longer exist if cancel culture continues to punish and silence dissenters who oppose its version of “speech.” Therefore, cancel culture doesn’t advance an open society where everyone is free to express themselves. In its place, cancel culture is propagating a form of totalitarianism.
The truth behind cancel culture’s gender neutrality
As cancel culture continues to impose its accepted “truth” and sanctioned “speech,” the ideology has also been moving people away from a standard of humanity to a modern “ideal” for humanity in the form of gender neutrality. Despite being born biologically and genetically a male or female (chromosomes), cancel culture teaches that a person’s feelings (that which is in their mind) override the natural reality of their gender. So if a person feels they are a different gender other than their biological gender, that person’s preferred gender ought to be validated.
So, in a way, by gender-neutralizing a toy like ‘Potato Head,’ Hasbro Company is teaching kids that transgenderism is a good thing. That if they ever feel like changing their gender, they can, just like changing ‘Potato Head’ into whoever they want “it” to be. However, gender neutrality and transgenderism run contrary to God’s creative design. From the beginning, God made humans with two biological genders, male and female, and the two complement one another — that is, the man and woman are suitable for each other (Gen. 2:18, 20). In her book Love Thy Body, Nancy Pearcey writes, “Scripture teaches that the creational differentiation of male and female is a good thing. Our complementary nature speaks of our yearning for union, which in turn reflects the divine nature — a God who is a Trinity, differentiated Persons in relationship with one another.”
Therefore, to say a person is “assigned” a gender at birth contradicts biology. At the moment of conception, a person doesn’t achieve a gender but receives a fixed sex. A male (XY) can attempt to become a female (XX). Yet, no matter how hard he tries to become a woman, he will always be the sex he was genetically born with.
So, my friend, the next time you see cancel culture in action, remember the real “truths” behind the dangerous philosophy and don’t let the fear of being canceled prevent you from speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) to those who need to hear it.
The Truth Behind Cancel Culture
The story of leftists boycotting a Hispanic food brand over disagreement with Trump.
On December 5, 1955, African Americans refused to ride the city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the segregation of seats. Blacks in the back, whites in the front. This protest marked the spark of the Civil Rights movement as it lasted just over a year, ending on December 20, 1955. It is regarded as the first large-scale U.S. demonstration against segregation. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ordered Montgomery to integrate its bus system. A boycott has a specific goal in mind. A boycott isn’t merely about disagreeing with someone’s opinion. It requires a sacrifice from its participants — taking aggressive action, but accomplishing a greater good for others.
Fast-forward 65 years later.
Boycotting is one thing. Cancel culture is another. Cancel culture demands perfection of opinion. In other words, if your opinion doesn’t line up with the “culture,” then your thoughts are deemed dirty, disgusting, and damaging. If you violate these undisclosed “rules,” then you are vilified, dominated, harassed, and bullied. This narcissistic culture is by nature pretending to have some sort of moral high ground by which its purveyors hurl insults at others to control them.
A tweet from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is illustrative:
“Oh look, it’s the sound of me Googling ‘how to make your own Adobo.’”
Igor Volsky tweeted: “The CEO of @GoyaFoods is at a White House event saying we’re ‘blessed to have a leader’ like Trump. Make your shopping decisions accordingly.”
The cancel culture believes:
- I can say whatever I want, but you can’t say whatever you want.
- You don’t need to think because I think for you.
- Two wrongs make a right.
But here’s the antidote to cancel culture in three words: “I’m not apologizing.”
The chief executive of Goya Foods, Robert Unanue, said that he would not apologize for his previous statement that the U.S. is “blessed” to have President Trump as a leader.
The CEO said of America, “It’s such an honor and such a blessing to be here in the greatest country in the world, the most prosperous country in the world, and we continue to grow. That’s what we’re here to do today.” He went on to say, “Today, it gives me great honor — and by the way, we’re all truly blessed at the same time to have a [leader] like President Trump, who is a [builder], and that’s what my grandfather did. He came to this country to build, to grow, to prosper. We have an incredible builder, and we pray. [We pray] for our leadership, our president, and we pray for our country that we will continue to prosper and to grow.”
Did you hear that? A man. An American. An unapologetic Patriot. Unlike so many that get bullied by cancel culture, Unanue was not going to cower to the pressure. I hope people like Drew Brees and the rest of the crumbling conservative crew will take a page out of his book. He told “Fox & Friends,” “It’s suppression of speech. In 2012, I was called by Michelle Obama to Tampa and they wanted the African American community and the Hispanic community to eat more nutritionally. They called on us as the most recognized Hispanic brand in the United States and I went. You’re allowed to … praise one president, but not allowed to make a positive comment [about Trump]. All of a sudden that’s not acceptable.” He said, “It’s a double standard.”
I love when the cancel culture gets put in its place. The cancel culture won’t win if we do our part. What can we do? Parents, don’t spoil your children. Teach them personal responsibility. Teach them how to value the small things in life and be grateful. This way, they won’t covet what others have and feel they are entitled to the things of others. End cancel culture one house at a time.
The frenzy of unrelenting online bullying further destroys the mental health of those already suffering, and everyone has a role to play
- Influencers are subjected to huge amounts of negative attention and trolling, especially in the era of “cancel culture.”
- Sometimes it’s because they are in the midst of a scandal, but other times they become a target for no real reason at all.
- The world was shocked when British TV star Caroline Flack tragically died by suicide on February 15. Her private life had been a constant focus of certain corners of the press and social media for years.
- The impact the media frenzy and sheer volume of negative attention had on Flack’s mental health cannot be ignored, especially as she spoke about struggling with depression several times.
- It’s right to question people in the public eye, but the line between fair criticism and a rampant hate mob is constantly blurred, contributing to the destruction of those already suffering.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Complete shock rippled through the UK when British TV star Caroline Flack died by suicide on February 15. It was a tragic end to a story that had been picked apart and cruelly scrutinized by certain corners of social media and the press for years.
We cannot — and should not — speculate about the many different reasons why someone takes their own life. Samaritans guidelines advise against it, and people’s lives reach tragic ends for reasons nobody else will understand. There is no single overarching explanation for why someone decides they can no longer deal with the world.
But it would be careless to ignore the impact the media frenzy and sheer volume of negative attention had on Flack’s mental health, not least because she spoke about it herself many times.
Her experience was not unique, as so many stars, both on TV and in new media, face poisonous vitriol from all sides.
The unrelenting pressure of fame
British tabloid newspapers published hundreds of articles about Flack over her career, then deleted some of them as soon as the news broke of her death. The pressure never let off, despite her being open about her battles with depression on several occasions.
Her partner Lewis Burton, ex-boyfriend Andrew Brady, and many other famous friends condemned how Flack was treated in the public eye, calling it a “trial by social media” and “media dogpile,” while placing the blame with her management, the Crown Prosecution Service, and unrelenting cruel commentators.
When Brady posed the question of who was to blame for Flack’s death in an emotional blog post, he answered: “All of us.”
“Her personal life [was] plastered all over the press like a bad sitcom,” he wrote, attacking the “vile paparazzi” and “invasive articles.”
“Her love life was a joke to you people,” he said. “Anything she did was recorded, exaggerated, and paraded for the world to see.”Caroline Flack tragically died by suicide in February.Jeff Spicer / Getty
Flack was the famed presenter of the hit ITV reality show “Love Island” before she stepped down while awaiting trial for alleged domestic abuse against Burton in December.
ITV released a statement live on air after claims from fellow TV star Amanda Holden that Flack was abandoned and “thrown to the dogs” after the charge.
“ITV has asked us just to make it clear – because there’s been some discussion about this – that they did actually keep in close contact with Caroline since this domestic incident and they were constantly offering her assistance and help,” Richard Madeley said on “Good Morning Britain.”
The company also launched “Britain Get Talking” in October, a campaign to get families talking to each other about mental health.
But brand consultant and CEO of Studio BE, Brandon Relph, told Insider he doesn’t think there are sufficient protections in place, particularly since a major study released by the Film and TV Charity last week found that nearly nine in 10 people (87%) working in film, TV, and cinema in the UK had experienced a mental health problem, and over 50% had considered suicide.
“I don’t think they’ve gone far enough,” he said. “We thought it was bad, but turns out it’s even worse than we thought.”
‘I don’t think I fully was prepared’
“Love Island” had already faced criticism for lacking proper mental health care to help the stars deal with their newfound fame, and better ease them into all the negative attention associated with it. Two former contestants died by suicide after leaving the villa — Sophie Gradon in 2018 at age 32, and Mike Thalassitis in 2019, age 26.
One islander from the 2018 season, Savanna Darnell, fell into a deep depression after being on the show for just a few days. She told Insider a major factor was all the attention she received when logging back into her social media accounts.
“It’s like I went on holiday for a week and came back to people knowing who I was, talking about me, writing things about me, and wanting pictures with me in the street,” she said. “I don’t think I fully was prepared. I thought I was. But I didn’t expect it to be how it was.”
Her short stint living in Casa Amor attracted more hate than she ever realized was possible, with trolls calling her the “ugliest contestant ever” and telling her she should die from cancer.
“It ruined my self esteem,” she said. “I hated the way I looked, I became stressed, my acne flared up because of it, which made me feel way more self conscious. It was a crazy experience.”
The hardest part of being skyrocketed to fame was the intense wave of public scrutiny, she said, where the public thought every aspect of her life was up for grabs because she was on TV.
“They can comment on your appearance, your life, your family, your friends,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
Darnell said she thinks TV companies have started looking after their stars better “because of past events,” but she would have benefited from therapy and help as soon as she exited the Love Island villa.
“Even when you feel like you don’t need it, you should be made to go, because I was in denial when I came out,” she said. “I felt like I was fine when I really wasn’t.”Savanna Darnell on “Love Island” in 2018.Love Island / ITV
The bully, the target, the bystander, and the defender
Media Psychologist Pamela Rutledge told Insider cyberbullying creates roles: the bully, the target, the bystander who willingly allows the abuse to continue, and the defender who speaks out.
“But even having defenders may not offset the negative emotions of hurtful content if someone is already depressed,” she said.
Fame makes someone an easy target for bullies and haters, she said, with repetitive, intentional, and personal insults they can make anonymously on social media. This encourages the individual to behave in a way the would be unlikely to in real life, and fuel “cancel culture” through the excitement of behaving badly.
“Social media makes it easy for haters to gain critical mass, forming a relentless cyber-mob spewing vitriol that can undermine self-image and worth,” she said.
“A celebrity can be reached through mentions and hashtags, and the interaction is visible to a larger audience, encouraging similarly needy others to join in and experience whatever thrill they get from anonymous meanness.”
When it’s all coming at them at once, it’s hard to remember where this hate stems from: A reflection of the bully’s many shortcomings. “Whether that’s a projection of the bully’s aggression and sense of powerfulness, a projection of unwanted feelings, jealousy, obsession, a lack of empathy, or an attempt to increase their own sense of social power and rank by diminishing another,” Rutledge said.
Online stars fight hate all the time
Rutledge said quitting social media sometimes feels like the most logical solution against online abuse, but this isn’t viable for influencers whose careers depend on keeping in touch with their fans.
Influencers, particularly YouTubers, are subjected to flurries of criticism and hatred at the online community’s whim. Gabbie Hanna, a creator with over 6 million subscribers, for example, is particularly susceptible to scrutiny. So much so, it feels like everyone watching her videos is just waiting for her to screw up.
She spoke to Insider for a previous article about her struggles with body confidence, saying she doesn’t even look at her comments anymore.
“I feel very detached from social media,” she said. “I basically use it as a job where I post and then I go and then that’s it. I don’t harp on what other people think or say because it can get very hateful and I’m just not at a place in my life where I’m willing to deal with that type of energy.”Gabbie Hanna.Gabbie Hanna / YouTube
The latest installment of drama came from a mistake she made in a recent now-deleted video. She followed a TikTok trend where she transformed herself into an “e-girl,” but didn’t realize she had included an image of Bianca Devins — a teen who was brutally murdered in 2019.
Online commentators and tea channels soon noticed Devins’ photo and accused Hanna of using a dead girl’s story for attention.
YouTubers and Twitter users called her a narcissist and made accusations about her character, even after she uploaded an apology. A video later posted by Devins’ mother and sisters still wasn’t enough to halt the flood of hate, with channels still accusing Hanna of crocodile tears and trying to manipulate the situation.
Relph said one of the major problems with cancel culture is how people make knee-jerk reactions and upload or comment them in real time. The online world moves so quickly that taking longer to react is frowned upon and portrayed as avoidance.
Hanna, for example, blurred out Devins’ photo when she became aware of the criticism. Then she remained silent while she contacted Devins’ mother. Onlookers, meanwhile, read this as callousness because it fit into their narrative of Hanna being a villain. In the end she could do nothing right.
Psychologist Pamela Paresky told Insider in a previous article that the human brain’s concept of community makes us start to see strangers on the internet like neighbors. If we think they do something we think is wrong, we don’t like to associate with them any more.
This means drama elicits incredibly emotive responses from fanbases, and online personalities can quickly fall into categories of all good or all bad. Their reputations are considered fair game and the repercussions of bullying on their mental health are not even considered.
Creators often take breaks after a scandal to try and block out the hateful noise, but it’s hard to do. A close circle of friends and family might not be enough to offset the feeling of the whole online world turning against them, leading to a growing sense of intense isolation.
“Social media platforms are ill-equipped to police haters,” Rutledge said. “The sheer range of what constitutes hateful messaging makes that untenable except in the most blatant cases. No one is watching out for us but ourselves.”
Those in the public eye are free to scrutinize, and so they should be — they are public figures setting an example to generations of younger people. But there has to be a line between fair criticism and a rampant hate mob, because how can anybody be expected to learn from their mistakes if they’re hung out to dry?
One of Flack’s last public messages before she took her own life has now become her legacy. She told people to simply “be kind.”
“I’m lucky to be able to pick myself up when things feel s—, but what happens if someone can’t,” she wrote in a post raising awareness for mental health day last October. “Be nice to people. You never know what’s going on. Ever.”
It seems as though no matter how many tragedies we experience, the gleeful take-down circus is rolled out time and time again. We all play a part: the casual commentators, journalists, and the companies standing by, complicit in watching the downward spiral.
Cancel culture can’t be blamed for every suicide, but there is no doubt it plays a part in destroying the mental health of vulnerable people who are already suffering.
Everyone in the world has a responsibility to think hard and really ask themselves what role they want to be known for — the bully, the bystander, or the defender.
Who’s behind the war on statues?
Night after night, in cities across the US, we witness marauding mobs toppling statues and celebrating as if such destruction constituted a great accomplishment.
To these statute demolishers, and their apologists in our politics and the media, these destructive acts are righteous victories over the forces of racism. But performative violence against marble figures has nothing to do with George Floyd, police brutality or discrimination.
At first, media reports stressed that vandals were concentrating on Confederate monuments. They presented the vandals as valiant avengers who were righting historical wrongs and ridding the US of symbols of its racist past. But it has quickly become clear that Confederate figures are not the only focus of these activists’ wrath.
In Portland, Oregon, protesters recently tore down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Back in 2017, Donald Trump predicted that the people protesting against Confederate monuments would set their sights on Washington and Jefferson next. His critics scoffed, called him paranoid, and blamed him for stirring up division. But he was right.
Toppling Washington and Jefferson is a justifiable act of anti-racism, say the apologists, because these Founding Fathers were slave-holders. But the US has never honored Washington and Jefferson for owning black slaves. Without Washington, there is no US as a country. Jefferson, among his many achievements, penned the famous words of the Declaration of Independence, ‘all men are created equal’. In doing so, he paved the way for Abraham Lincoln to go to war to end slavery, and inspired Martin Luther King and countless others around the world to fight for equality. But that counts for nothing with these myopic vandals.
The arguments made in favour of destroying images of the Founding Fathers, which the media indulge with sympathy, are deeply flawed. They offer no balanced assessment of history. But they also have no limit. What comes down next – the Washington Monument? The Jefferson Memorial? Mount Rushmore? All would seem to be fair game by this logic.
Any claim that this statue-toppling is about anti-racism has already been demolished by the mob themselves. In San Francisco, demonstrators tore down a statue of Ulysses S Grant. That’s right, the general who defeated the Confederates in the Civil War, and the president who worked to secure the rights of former slaves in the South during Reconstruction. Even more insanely, protesters in Washington, DC have taken aim at Lincoln, and a statue known as the Emancipation Memorial.
It is as if these people are deeply proud of their historical illiteracy and want everyone to know it. The Emancipation Memorial was funded entirely by free slaves (an amazing story), and its unveiling in 1876 was commemorated by the famous former slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. But to these idiots, tearing down a statue of Lincoln funded by slaves is somehow a blow for racial equality.
Similarly, protesters in Madison, Wisconsin, pulled down a statue of Hans Christian Heg, an abolitionist immigrant who died fighting for the union. For good measure, they also toppled a statue commemorating women’s suffrage and beat up a 60-year-old Democratic state senator. It seems that, in the battle against white supremacy, attacking any white person will do.
After the attacks in Wisconsin and elsewhere, it is clear to see that these ‘activists’ across the country are irrational. Toppling statues simply offers them a nihilistic thrill. This is not a principled statement about racism in America.
Watching all this, many people are asking: why is no one in authority stopping them? There are laws against such vandalism. Why aren’t city mayors and state governors enforcing those laws? The short answer is: because the political and cultural elite sympathize with the vandals.
Indeed, some political leaders seem to be actively supporting the activists. In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney and district attorney Larry Krasner, after doing little to stop nights of looting and arson, pre-emptively removed a statue of former mayor Frank Rizzo. When rumors spread that they were about to do the same with a Christopher Columbus statue, people in the neighborhood formed an armed militia to protect it. Only then did Kenney and Krasner start evoking the law, and had the police disperse the Columbus defenders. Meanwhile, they looked the other way when a mob defaced a statue of Matthias Baldwin, a white abolitionist. The message from these politicos was clear: not only will we do nothing to prevent mobs from tearing down and damaging statues, but we will also crack down on anyone who tries to stop this from happening.
It is wrong to view the extremists as isolated hotheads, or radicals bent on challenging the establishment. No, their outlook is shared with those in the highest echelons of society. In sync with those taking to the streets, the head of the American Museum of Natural History in New York has asked the mayor to remove the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt. The museum’s board members believe the monument is racist, and offensive to blacks and Native Americans – a view that is debatable, but now won’t be debated. The vandals are not just on the street, they can also be found in the boardrooms of our cultural institutions.
And where did our street activists get the idea that all of American history, including statues of its leaders and heroes, is ‘problematic’ and needs to be eradicated from our sight? Most likely, from our elite universities and most prominent media institutions. When protesters in Portland toppled George Washington this week, they spraypainted ‘1619’ on it. That was apt, because the toppling of statues embodies the outlook of the New York Times’ 1619 Project – an initiative that claims that the US was founded for the purpose of entrenching slavery, and will never escape that legacy. The ideology of ‘1619’ is one that says burn it all down and start over.
There is a parallel between the fervor and indiscriminate destruction we’re seeing applied to inanimate objects in city squares and a different kind of force being used on people in social life. The rapid spread of ‘cancel culture’ – where individuals are accused of racism and shunned from public life – is destroying careers, livelihoods and reputations. At the same time that mobs are raging on our streets, another type of mob is, with the same ferocity and recklessness, tearing apart people’s lives.
The destruction of public monuments has got to stop. For a start, this does nothing to help black Americans who face discrimination. Instead, it hijacks that cause and turns it towards vindictive and intolerant ends.
Further, those who say ‘they’re just statues, not real people’ are misguided. Our public monuments do matter, because they embody our cultural values and historical memory. They are part of what we call our civilization. Of course, once erected, not all should stand for eternity, and our views on who deserves to be honored are likely to change over time. But that decision to remove a monument has to follow a democratic process, so all get a say, not just a mob that thinks it knows best. To give vandals free rein is to attack democracy and civic tolerance.
There will always be those who want to destroy rather than build. What’s unusual about the situation we find ourselves in today is that that outlook is widespread among people in positions of power. Those who are supposed to be leading society are instead tearing it down from within. As much as a street mob is a problem, our self-loathing and destructive elites in politics and culture are a far bigger problem.
The children’s book industry has changed in the last few years.
The book offerings you’ll see in a bookstore or library today are much more diverse than a decade ago.
This is a good thing. All children should be able to find a book they can identify with. All children should be inspired to love literature. What isn’t a good thing is that much of the current offerings published recently aren’t about helping children see themselves in a book but indoctrinating children into a particular political and ideological persuasion. The message being sent to children is that all of the world’s ills can be fixed if they turn to activism. No child is too young to start. What is the reason for the change? Part of the reason is the simple fact that children’s book authors, publishers, editors, and agents overwhelmingly vote Democrat and the industry is mirroring the swift changes in the Democratic Party. Many industry people publicly display their political opinions on Twitter and Facebook. For example, this agent tweets more about his political views than he does his clients or their books.
One children’s book executive editor at Penguin Random House Books for Young Readers, a division of the largest publisher in the country, also does not conceal her political views on Twitter. She frequently retweets comments by Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, MSNBC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rachel Maddow, and others.
Another top-level editor at the same company has tweeted such things as #StopKavanaughNow. Yet another tweeted, “I know many will disagree, but I’m here for Bernie’s righteous rage.” The same goes for children’s book authors and illustrators on Twitter. If you scroll through a handful, you’ll see many comments such “How is this psycho our president,” or “Seems ironic that so many republicans are critical of Sanders for being a dem socialist when Trump is rapidly becoming a fascist.”
In private Facebook posts, this one-sided political force is even more evident. I’ve seen hundreds of authors, editors, and agents express extreme progressive political viewpoints. You may think from reading thus far that I must have voted for Trump. I did not. I have been a life-long Democrat, but see the danger in the industry being so one-sided. There are no checks and balances and as a result, the industry is going down very dangerous path.
Not Just Publishing But Also Libraries
Librarians are also following this dangerous path. Librarians are the gatekeepers to much of what we read in public libraries and in schools. ALA’s mission statement is “to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all,” but what happens when librarians are no longer ensuring full access to information? What happens when they, as I have witnessed on Facebook, openly praise book banning? What happens when their entire mission seems to be about racism and how to rid our world of it?
These white “allies” are constantly tripping over themselves to be as ridiculously apologetic for their existence as possible. This poses a question: are their insecurities about skin color rubbing off on the children they teach?
Two-Way Activism Street Between Books, Schools
To repair “the ways White people reinforce and collude with systemic racism,” school teachers and librarians are looking toward activism. There are many activist sites dedicated to overhauling the public education system.
Teaching For Change is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “building social justice starting in the classroom.” The site offers a free lesson plan called “Resistance 101,” described as an “innovative lesson plan, launched in January 2017 to coincide with the inauguration, helps students recognize their power to challenge injustice.”
On Ideas.TED.com, New York Times bestselling author Caroline Paul wrote an article entitled “Activism isn’t just for adults and teens. We need to teach younger kids to be activists, too.” She wrote, “I wish I’d been taught concepts like privilege, prejudice and intersectionality at that tender young age, instead of bumbling all the way through early adulthood ignorant of primal social forces.” Simply providing activist books, however, is not enough. Many teachers and librarians seem dedicated to eradicating “the classics” in an attempt to make room for more “relevant” literature. In response to a tweet by activist and educator Paul Gorski, high school reading teacher Melissa Barnett proudly touted her decision to throw away bins full of books.
Working Hand in Hand with Activist Teachers
Racism isn’t the only thing on educators’ minds. So is climate change. The website then lays out classroom strategies. To illustrate these ideas in simple terms, with appealing art, children’s literature has taken on the activist mantle. There are already a handful of picture books about the teen Swedish climate change activist named Greta Thunberg. One must wonder if this will contribute to what’s been dubbed “eco anxiety” in children.
In 2017 Scholastic published a book entitled “President Donald Trump.” The backlash following book’s publication illustrates how political the industry really is.
More than 1,000 librarians and authors wrote complaints to Scholastic for publishing this book in its series on all U.S. presidents. Many called for a boycott. Scholastic defended its decision, saying: “The Trump Rookie Biography was published in February 2017 shortly after the president’s inauguration. The book presents a simple, factual description of the new president, and is not intended to be a comprehensive review or commentary on his policies.”
Still, authors and teachers were not happy. One teacher wrote, “I am an elementary school teacher specializing in social studies. I won’t ever purchase another Scholastic product again. I will not distribute any literature that they send. I will inform other teachers and parents.”
The hashtag #StepUpScholastic was formed. Their Tumblr page describes the hashtag this way: “a campaign for teachers, parents, and students to tell scholastic to publish and distribute children’s books that reflect and affirm the identity, history, and lives of ALL children in our schools. Our current campaign calls on Scholastic recall their children’s biographies of Trump and issue accurate, age appropriate texts.”
If you look closely, you’ll noticed that this protest was organized, in part, by Teaching for Change. Since the protest of the Trump biography, Scholastic has published many of its catalogs in partnership with We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit organization founded by young adult author Ellen Oh, who has been influential in getting books pulled and pressuring authors to agree not to publish their “offensive” works.
This tactic used to force change has resulted in many books being either cancelled pre-publication, pulled from shelves post-publication, or critiqued so heavily, going so far as to encourage non-readers to flood Amazon with one-star reviews and send petitions to the publishers. The goal is that any book that survives this onslaught and remains in print cannot garner any awards or praise, effectively keeping such a book from earning out its advance.
When an author’s book doesn’t earn out its advance, a publisher is much less likely to offer the author another contract. Authors the activists don’t like are being eliminated.
Scared Authors Conform
What do authors do when they are too afraid to go against this forceful tide? Swim with it. As a result of this activism, children’s book offerings on political figures is very one-sided. If you go to a bookstore, you will find a plethora of books about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Below are the current Ginsburg offerings, most of which are for the 4-8 crowd.
Due to the Obama administration’s new regulations on Title IX, some states enacted transgender student rules that negate parental rights. For example, New Jersey’s Department of Education says, “A school district shall accept a student’s asserted gender identity; parental consent is not required.”
This attitude is reflected in the picture book offerings for young children. There is now a plethora of transgender books for the picture book age, generally categorized as for 4-8.
Targeted Attacks on Non-Political Authors
Authors who aren’t writing social justice books are finding it impossible to avoid criticism. For example, creating animal characters is a no-no (that’s avoiding the diversity topic), authors must “stay in their lane,” (they are not qualified to write what they don’t know), and authors must include enough diversity and at least one of each kind of person is lauded (there go large parts of our history and basically anything not in a large city). Anything can be criticized for any reason and is.
What is the point of all of this? To wipe the slate clean and bring in new authors and illustrators who are on board with activism and check boxes on the intersectional checklist.
If we want our next generation to be well educated in history, science, English, and math, and want to nurture a love of literature and not indoctrinate students, then we need to have more diversity of thought in the classroom and in children’s publishing. We need to push back against librarians who promote book bans, censoring what authors wish to write, and indoctrination in schools.
At the moment, the activist groups are making many inroads, and fast. If we don’t push back soon, and loudly, then it will be too late.
Americans tune in to ‘cancel culture’ — and don’t like what they see
One of the few things that Barack Obama and Donald Trump agree on is cancel culture.
In the last year, as numerous public figures have become the targets of online campaigns by social media swarms, the former and current president have spoken out against the practice. “That’s not activism,” Obama said last November. “That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
In a Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore, Trump said, “We want free and open debate, not speech codes and cancel culture. We embrace tolerance, not prejudice.” Speaking of the left, he added that “one of their political weapons is ‘cancel culture’ — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.” (One commentator quickly pointed out that Trump has long been one of the most enthusiastic practitioners of cancel culture.)
We were curious how much this debate over cancel culture — which has quickly morphed from a Twitter obsession for elite journalists to a campaign rallying cry for Trump — has permeated the public consciousness. We asked our polling partner, Morning Consult, to field some questions in our weekly survey and one surprising finding is the number of Americans who now agree with Obama and Trump and want to cancel cancel culture — or at least its worst aspects.
There’s significant disagreement about what cancel culture is or even whether it exists. The POLITICO survey used a neutral definition of cancel culture adapted from its entry on dictionary.com: “the practice of withdrawing support for (or canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.”
Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming. A plurality (46%) of Americans believe that cancel culture “has gone too far.” About a quarter of Americans — many of whom are perhaps blissfully offline — said they didn’t know or had no opinion on the matter. When they are removed from the results, a clear majority — across almost every demographic category — says that cancel culture has gone too far.
Twenty-seven percent of voters said cancel culture had a somewhat positive or very positive impact on society, but almost half (49%) said it had a somewhat negative or very negative impact.
While online shaming may seem like a major preoccupation for the public if you spend a lot of time on Twitter, only 40% of voters say they have participated in cancel culture and only one in 10 say they participate “often.” It appears to be more of a liberal pursuit: Half of Democrats have shared their dislike of a public figure on social media after they did something objectionable, while only a third of Republicans say they have.
Age is one of the most reliable predictors of one’s views. Members of Generation Z are the most sympathetic to punishing people or institutions over offensive views, followed closely by Millennials, while GenXers and Baby Boomers have the strongest antipathy towards it. Cancel culture is driven by younger voters. A majority (55%) of voters 18-34 say they have taken part in cancel culture, while only about a third (32%) of voters over 65 say they have joined a social media pile-on. The age gap may partially explain why Ernest Owens, a millennial journalist, responded to Obama’s criticism with a New York Times op-ed that amounted to a column-length retort of “OK, boomer.”
The poll also suggests that the public at large is more forgiving than the gladiators on social media. When asked about controversial or offensive statements from public figures, the longer ago the comment was made the less likely it mattered. Fifty-four percent said that a problematic statement made a year ago was likely to “completely” or “somewhat” change their opinion of the person, versus 29% who said it would “change a little bit” or “not change at all.”
For statements as far back as 15 years ago the results were almost reversed: 26% said there would be a change versus 53% who said there would be little or no change.
The debate over cancel culture has recently intersected with discussions about race and diversity that are taking place inside many American institutions, including major newsrooms.
Last month, The New York Times pushed out James Bennet, its editorial page editor, after an outcry among staff over an op-ed the paper solicited from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) calling for the use of the military to quell violent protests. One of Bennet’s right-leaning (but anti-Trump) writers, Bari Weiss, left this month after what she described in a fiery resignation letter as “forays into Wrongthink” that “have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views.” She decried how the Times has allowed Twitter to “become its ultimate editor.”
The Bennet resignation was a catalyst for a group of academics, journalists, and artists to sign an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine that condemned a “censoriousness” marked by “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” (Full disclosure: my girlfriend, Olivia Nuzzi of New York Magazine, signed the letter.)
Naturally, there was an open letter in response to the open letter.
Not surprisingly, the POLITICO poll reveals that many Americans aren’t paying attention to many of these controversies. We asked about the Weiss resignation and the Harper’s letter. Forty-seven percent of those surveyed didn’t know about or had no opinion of the Weiss controversy and 42 percent didn’t know about or had no opinion of what, in the insular world of Acela corridor media, has become known as The Letter.
But in both of those cases for those Americans who did offer an opinion, the anti-cancel culture warriors had the majority view: 56% approved of The Letter and 70% approved of Weiss’s decision to quit “because of perceived harassment and her perception of self-censorship within the New York Times due to Twitter.”
There have been some signs of a correction, including at the Times. Recently Steven Pinker, the Harvard linguist, was the target of a campaign to have him removed as a distinguished fellow of the Linguistic Society of America. After looking into the criticism, which involved allegations of racial insensitivity, and finding them lacking merit, the Times’s Michael Powell reported the controversy not with bloodless bothsidesism but rather as a debunking of the meritless charges against Pinker.
There was widespread outcry over the treatment of David Shor, a young data analyst at the progressive group Civis Analytics who was apparently fired for tweeting an academic study about how violent and nonviolent protests shaped public opinion in the sixties.
Cancel culture has seized the attention of many journalists, and I shared the results with two writers who have been prominent in the recent debate but on opposite sides of it. Matt Taibbi, a longtime Rolling Stone writer who also has an independent platform on Substack, said he wasn’t surprised that the poll suggests there’s a backlash against cancel culture. His concern as a writer who often bucks liberal conventional wisdom — he was highly skeptical of the Russia-Trump connection — is that institutions need an intellectual environment with a wide enough spectrum of views to sometimes allow for bad, even terrible, arguments.
“One of the reasons I took up the subject,” he said in an interview, “is that I have a lot of discussions with people who work in the media who in the last few months have said they are afraid to pitch a certain kind of story because they don’t want it to get around that they’re interested in a certain topic because they might end up on the radar of people in the union or those who are very politically engaged in the newsroom.”
He gave the example of a colleague who wanted to do a story about a pharmacy in a small town that was damaged during protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and resulted in the sick and elderly unable to fill prescriptions.
“It’s not about James Bennet or Bari Weiss or Andrew Sullivan specifically,” he said. “But it only takes a couple of high-profile examples to dramatically impact how people think and behave, especially in this job climate. A lot of people thought I was defending the Tom Cotton editorial. I wasn’t. What I was saying is that the editor watching that is going to see wherever the line is and say, ‘I should stay far away from it.’ And as soon as that mindset takes hold what you get is a whole lot of people who are afraid to say anything that everyone else isn’t already saying and that’s dangerous for our business.”
Taibbi added, “You have to be able to screw up occasionally.”
Osita Nwanevu, a staff writer at The New Republic, has been making the case that the backlash against cancel culture is overblown. He viewed the survey results as similar to other polls that show the public is often against somewhat scary-sounding things like political correctness and cancel culture in the abstract, but in favor of the underlying ideas in many specific cases.
“You often see pluralities or majorities saying this stuff goes too far,” he said in an interview. “But then if you ask whether we ought to be more concerned about sexual harassment or racism or whether certain specific kinds of speech ought to be sanctioned, then you start to see the that fundamental ideas behind these freighted terms are more popular than the terms themselves.”
He’s correct. In the POLITICO poll, 53% agreed with the statement that “even though free speech is protected, people should expect social consequences for expressing unpopular opinions in public, even those that are deeply offensive to other people,” while only 31% said their view was closer to the following: “There should not be social consequences for expressing unpopular opinions in public, even those that are deeply offensive to other people because free speech is protected.”
The debate over cancel culture, in Nwanevu’s view, is more about power. One person’s online mob is another person’s vehicle to hold someone accountable.
“What we’re seeing described as cancel culture isn’t so much a new kind of behavior but a new set of actors in our political discourse who get to say what isn’t ok — young people, African Americans, transgender people,” he said. “They now have the power to have their voices heard. Everyone thinks there are lines. The question is where are those lines and who gets to draw them.”
IBM Gets It Right on Cancel Culture and Corporate Responsibility
On the heels of the failed insurrection of Jan. 6, several prominent Republicans have raged that the real danger to American democracy is “cancel culture.” That view is quite understandable. After all, several top U.S. corporations have already canceled their financial support for scores of Republicans in Congress who abetted the insurrection, and the fallout has only just begun. Despite Republicans’ complaints, it appears the business community is determined to exercise its right to boycott whomever it pleases, and IBM has just made the case for corporate cancel culture to go even further.
When boycotts work: “Cancel culture” as damage control
The term “cancel culture” has different shades of meaning. Generally, it refers to an outpouring of criticism targeting celebrities and other public figures. During the Donald Trump administration, it has also become a political slur. Leading Republican officials such as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley deployed the term “cancel culture” to neutralize Black Lives Matter supporters and other critics of the outgoing president’s policies on human and civil rights, among other issues.
But using the slur “cancel culture” has now become a damage control strategy for lawmakers facing corporate boycotts due to their connection to the failed insurrection attempt. An ever-growing list of business leaders joined a funding boycott on the 147 Republican members of Congress who objected to the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6. In addition, tech companies are boycotting Trump and some of his supporters by denying them access to their social media or e-commerce platforms.
Under these circumstances, many of those 147 elected officials will find it difficult, if not impossible, to win re-election. Other Republican party members seeking higher office are also at risk. Little wonder that they are leaning on the “cancel culture” slur to regain access to corporate dollars, media support and e-commerce platforms.
Gov. Haley provides one example of how the “cancel culture” slur works as a damage control strategy. She spoke at a closed-door meeting of the Republican National Committee on Jan. 7, just one day after the failed insurrection. As reported by Politico and other news organizations, she criticized the president and called upon members of her party to do some soul-searching.
But another part of Haley’s speech was picked up by a conservative op-ed contributor in The Hill, who reported: “Haley also warned of what might turn out to be a much more corrosive threat to the already unravelling fabric of our republic: the rise of censorship and ‘cancel culture.’”
The op-ed continued:
“They’ve demonstrated that they’ll ‘cancel’ anyone who gets in their way,” Haley said. “They want to shout down and shut up anyone who disagrees with them. They want to take control of the classroom, the boardroom, the media green room and even the dining room table.”
In sum, the real danger facing the U.S. is not the violent extremists who attacked the Capitol building with murderous intent. Members of the public who insist on a civil society are the real enemies.
IBM gets corporate social responsibility right
The “cancel culture” slur may sound like a smart strategy inside the Republican bubble, but in a corporate context, it is something entirely different. It is an existential threat to the corporate social responsibility movement. It erases the foundational principle of the movement — namely, that corporations have the power to decide right from wrong.
Christopher A. Padilla, IBM’s vice president of government and regulatory affairs, is among those recognizing the threat that the “cancel culture” slur poses to the corporate voice on matters of moral, social and civic concern.
In an IBM blog post last week, Padilla did not call out the Republican party by name, but he clearly intended his message as an argument for corporations to flex their public muscle far beyond the cancellation of donations to Republicans. “Many of our peers in corporate America have started by suspending their financial contributions to elected officials who objected to the clear and certain outcome of the election,” Padilla wrote. “But this moment in history should be about much more than organizations temporarily withholding political money to take a stand. This is an opportunity for us to pause and think, to look ahead at what policy measures can truly restore trust and confidence in our democracy.”
Padilla noted that IBM has a decades-long policy of not making political donations, either directly or through a PAC. From this nonpartisan platform, Padilla pledged that IBM would support Congress and the incoming Joe Biden administration in a series of reforms aimed at limiting the ability of the Republican party, or anyone else, to organize another insurrection.
That includes strengthening the rules for presidential transitions, updating Hatch Act restrictions on partisan politicking by public servants, restricting the installation of partisan allies in federal agencies, and reforming the law on financial disclosure and divestiture for persons holding public office.
Padilla also highlighted two legislative proposals previously supported by IBM, which bear directly on the ability of the Republican-backed mob to organize and break into the U.S. Capitol building with lethal force, reportedly with the involvement of law enforcement officers.
One is the issue of justice in policing, which dominated the public discourse in the months leading up to the 2020 election. IBM is among the corporations supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and Padilla pledged to step up the company’s efforts to advocate for new racial justice legislation like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
The other reform has bears on the issue of tech company liability for online content. Tech companies are currently shielded under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and Padilla pledged that IBM would support transparency-oriented legislation like the bipartisan PACT Act introduced during the previous session of Congress.
Section 230 reforms cut straight to the heart of the “cancel culture” slur by affirming the responsibility of tech companies to make moral, ethical, and civic judgements about the speech and images they host.
“Cancel culture,” the talent race and brand reputation
If Gov. Haley and her colleagues in the Republican party hope to defuse the corporate boycott movement by leaning on the “cancel culture” slur, they have their work cut out for them.
Even before the insurrection, the Republican party was already at risk of losing the talent race, as the up-and-coming generation turns away from racism and white supremacy. Now reports have surfaced that employers are shying away from hiring former Trump administration officials, adding yet another reason for talented and ambitious young people to avoid associating with the Republican brand.
Lest Republicans complain that the employment issue is another form of “cancel culture,” Forbes chief content officer and editor, Randall Lane, counters that the issue is not political — it is a simple matter of brand reputation. In a Jan. 7 article, Lane warned employers of the reputational risk involved in hiring any of Trump’s top spokespersons, based on their collective track record of lying to the public.
“Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie,” he wrote, while noting that Forbes is a top brand with a reputation of its own to protect. He placed “cancel culture” firmly in the silo of “societal blight,” meaning that it has no bearing on a company’s right to protect its brand. “This standard needs to apply to liars from either party,” he concluded. “It’s just a realization that, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, in a thriving democracy, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”
Reputational risk and public safety
The reputational risk factor is already emerging in areas aside from corporate donations. Loews Hotels, for example, caused a stir over the weekend when it publicly announced that its Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando canceled a fundraiser for Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who is widely regarded as among the chief instigators of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“We are horrified and opposed to the events at the Capitol and all who supported and incited the actions,” Loews wrote in a Twitter post on Jan. 16. “In light of those events and for the safety of our guests and team members, we have informed the host of the [February] fundraiser that it will no longer be held at Loews Hotels.”
Th public safety issue dovetails with the growing movement among corporations to push back against permissive state laws on carrying weapons in public. It also reinforces the efforts of corporations to push back against the anti-mask movement as a simple matter of civic responsibility.
Business leaders have only just begun to realize that they can steamroll over the “cancel culture” slur. The only question is whether they can act quickly and forcefully enough to help prevent Trump, Republican members of Congress, and their supporters from creating another insurrection from the ashes of the first one.
Cancel Culture Is So Toxic For Our Mental Health
It’s been a good year for cancelling. There’s the pandemic, of course, which crushed all of our plans and some hopes and dreams along the way. But there were also more specific cancellations. From celebrities – Jimmy Fallon, J K Rowling and Ellen DeGeneres – to brands like SoulCycle and Oatly (as well as a fair few “normal” people), if you spoke, tweeted, or acted in an unfavourable way in 2020, chances were you’d be swiftly shunned for it.
Cancel culture – which sees individuals and brands spurned due to comments, actions or stances that some perceive to be wrong – is nothing new. “Fundamentally, cancel culture is about shame,” explains chartered psychologist and author of How To Build A Healthy Brain, Kimberley Wilson. “Shame emerges in response to the feeling that we have transgressed against some agreed social rule and lost status within the group.” Wilson says that evolutionary psychologists believe shame played a role in our survival – one upon a time, doing something that got us expelled from our tribe would have been life threatening.
But while being ostracized from society for wrongdoings has been a risk throughout human history, and while we’ve always – rightly – called attention to injustices, social media has given rise to a particularly virulent form of mob justice that is degrading our (already taxed) mental health.
“Social media has democratised shaming (we can all shame anyone we like), simultaneously expanding its reach, stripping away any mitigating or humanising context, and leaving a permanent paper trail of what might have been a momentary indiscretion,” says Wilson. She believes ones of the biggest mental health risks of online cancelling is the “pile on” – the fact that within minutes a person could be verbally attacked by thousands of people. “For the ‘cancelled’ person it can feel as though they are being attacked by the whole world.” For anyone watching, there’s the feeling you could easily be next.
In its current form, cancel culture is anonymous, fueled by a pack mentality, and intensely polarizing – “I am right, you are wrong.” It teaches us that if someone does something wrong, or champions someone or something that we may not like or agree with, then we must stop supporting them immediately. No grey areas allowed: they’re cancelled, they’re finished, and their name is attached to the #IsOverParty hashtag to prove it.
However, while calling out bad behaviour might be important, a culture that encourages people to be quick to cancel and reluctant to forgive is dangerous. It creates an environment that doesn’t allow anyone to correct their behaviour (they should’ve known better), nor learn from their mistakes. And after all, mistakes, without sounding trite, are part of what makes us human. They’re how we grow and develop as people.
“Cancel culture often denies the cancelled individual the most basic of human opportunities: to apologise and to be absolved,” explains Wilson. “Because the road to redemption is blocked by the indignant mob.” A quick apology is viewed as insincere, a slow one as being issued under duress, and the matter can still be resurrected days, weeks, even years later.
Children learn through mistakes. And no matter the severity of their mistake, we teach them to admit their wrongdoings, to apologise, demonstrate remorse, make amends, learn and grow. Cancel culture, by denying adults the same opportunity, disregards our imperfect nature and stymies our potential for growth.
In terms of benefits to “cancelling”, there are a few. As with ancient ostracisations, the fear of shame can potentially keep our behaviour in check. Plus, it gives a voice to people who may otherwise be powerless – creating tangible consequences for those who have more power in society, such as large, multinational brands.
However, while public shaming can make an individual less likely to repeat a behaviour, and consumer opinion can lead to significant and positive shifts in a company, the majority of cancelled victims are not powerful people or brands. For every celebrity moved to sign an open letter disavowing cancel culture, there are 10 vulnerable people who quietly suffer personal, devastating harm – as well illustrated in Jon Ronson’s 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
Ultimately, the collective bullying and cancellation of individuals for relatively minor, one-off events or comments (without the possibility of reform), often outweighs the harm caused by the actual event or comment. Should someone lose their reputation or their job – their entire livelihood, upon which perhaps their family also depends – because of one tweet? Do they deserve to have their lives torn apart, their homes targeted, death threats flooding their inboxes? It’s rare that Obama and Trump agree on anything, but both have spoken out against cancel culture. Trump compared it to totalitarianism (which seems a bit rich, to be honest), while Obama observed: “The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you.”
Good mental health depends on flexibility, on compassion, and on understanding. It relies on apologies and forgiveness, and (like any good penal system), sees mistakes as an opportunity not for punishment, but for reform. When it comes to cancelling, don’t give in to online peer pressure – do your own research and allow people to be sorry. We’ve all said and done stupid things that we regret. We’ve all made mistakes. And we all deserve second chances, even on the internet.
Wilson’s advice for someone who’s been cancelled:
- Get off social media. It is utterly overwhelming to be confronted with tens or hundreds of people giving you their opinion of you or your behavior. It is too much for us to process. Turn your phone off, uninstall the apps (at least for a while), give your phone to someone else to screen for you.
- Try to hold on to who you know yourself to be. Those who are cancelling you are likely to be telling you what kind of person you are based on one event. But each of us is more complex than a single incident. Connect with people who truly know you.
- Reconnect with the world. It’s easy to forget in the midst of a social media storm that there is an entire planet out there where no one knows (or cares) about what you might have done. Spending some time in the real world, particularly in nature, can help to shift your perspective and remind you that, even if it feels like it, the whole world isn’t out to get you.
- Remember that cancelling is not actually about morality; it about dominance. It’s not an attempt to help you be a better person or see a genuine error (people can reach out in private to do that). It’s an attempt to control you. The people doing the cancelling do not have the moral high ground.
Cancel culture is a relic of slavery
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, which was forced to redefine the word “cancel” because it has a new meaning, cancel culture “has been credited to Black users of Twitter, where it has been used as a hashtag” to sever relationships between public figures and their fans.
It’s unfortunate that Merriam-Webster took the initiative to update the definition only to get it wrong. Cancel culture is an extrajudicial punishment for people who misbehave, usually by supporting racist, sexist or LGBTQiA+-phobic ideas in a public way.
Cancel culture’s playbook is simple. 1) Establish rules of what’s acceptable and not acceptable to say and do. 2) Find evidence of misconduct. 3) Activate a mob to suss out where the offender works and lives, and harass him/her. 4) Get offender fired, making it impossible for them to earn money in any possible livelihood. 5) Restrict their influence – both socially and politically – by making them so toxic that they can’t interact with anyone. Purify society by purging them.
Proponents like Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic say it’s a form of accountability. Writer and film critic Alisha Grauso says it’s not cancel culture but “consequence culture.”
Others, like accomplished authors, journalists and thought leaders who signed a public letter in Harper’s Magazine and President Donald Trump – who said through Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany he “stands against … cancel culture, which seeks to erase our history” even though he championed two of the largest cancellation campaigns of the last decade: birtherism and keeping Colin Kapernick unemployed – think it threatens American culture.
The thing about cancel culture is that it is our history. No matter how one beholds this social phenomenon, it’s prudent to remember that it’s a vestige of slavery, or at least the organized efforts to maintain it.
Right after the 13th Amendment was passed and all slaves were decreed free, a series of local and state laws – collectively called Black codes (1865-66) or Jim Crow laws, post-Reconstruction – developed around the country to try to roll back the protections that would have equalized Black and white people – Step 1 of cancel culture.
Black codes sought to control Black people’s labor with requirements like signing one-year employment contracts that would result in their arrest if not satisfied. Any inability to comply with the codes was labeled misconduct – cancel culture Step 2.
Even throughout Reconstruction, the way Black people were treated roughly approximates what cancel culture does today. Pursuant to cancel culture Step 3, a mob joined in – the Ku Klux Klan was formed in 1865 – and performed the 19th-century version of doxxing by burning churches, schools and crosses at Black homes.
Black people couldn’t support themselves because they were forced to work for free in indentured servitude as punishment for their original misconduct. The criminal record that followed them prevented any sustainable income. That’s Step 4.
Then white supremacist lawmakers deadened Black people’s newly established power as free people by taking their voting rights through felony disenfranchisement. They had no influence in politics and stopped mattering to anyone who could help them – cancel culture Step 5. Whites purify society by purging Blacks; an editorial in the Macon, Georgia, Daily Telegraph in the 1860s said as much: “There is such a radical difference in the mental and moral (nature) of the white and Black race, that it would be impossible to secure order in a mixed community by the same (law).”
Today we can’t secure order when racist ranters keep collecting paychecks or maintain Twitter accounts.
Cancel culture isn’t totally illogical. Only when offenders feel the vulnerability that groups who are traditionally discriminated against experience will they understand why what they did or said was wrong. Plus, when people like Michael Lofthouse – the tech CEO who went off on an Asian-American family in a restaurant recently – or Amy Cooper, the woman charged July 6 for filing a false report when she called 9-1-1 on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park – apologize for their candid harangues, we suspect they’re more scared than sincere.
It may appeal to us at times to eliminate the people who piss us off, but that doesn’t erase the fact that the designers of this practice of canceling, those citizens who perfected it, were white supremacists preserving slavery, hoping to re-create it.
Defenders of cancel culture would be wise to learn its roots and not let themselves be defined by their implicit support for racist and negating Black codes and Jim Crow laws. That’s cause to get themselves canceled.
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